Refrigerant poisoning happens when someone is exposed to the chemicals used to cool appliances. Refrigerant contains chemicals called fluorinated hydrocarbons (often referred to by a common brand name, “Freon”).
Freon is a tasteless, mostly odorless gas. When it is deeply inhaled, it can cut off vital oxygen to your cells and lungs.
Limited exposure — for example, a spill on your skin or breathing near an open container — is only mildly harmful. However, you should try to avoid all contact with these types of chemicals. Even small amounts can cause symptoms.
Inhaling refrigerant fumes on purpose to “get high” can be very dangerous. It can be fatal even the very first time you do it. Regularly inhaling high concentrations of Freon can cause conditions such as:
- breathing difficulty
- fluid buildup in your lungs
- organ damage
- sudden death
If you suspect refrigerant poisoning, call 911 or the National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
Mild exposure to refrigerant chemicals is generally harmless. Poisoning is rare except in cases of misuse or exposure in a confined space. Symptoms of mild to moderate poisoning include:
- irritation of your eyes, ears, and throat
- frostbite (liquid Freon)
- chemical burn to your skin
Symptoms of severe poisoning include:
- fluid buildup or bleeding in your lungs
- burning sensation in your esophagus
- vomiting up blood
- decreased mental status
- difficult, labored breathing
- irregular heart rate
- loss of consciousness
If you are with someone you think has refrigerant poisoning, quickly move the person to fresh air to avoid further complications from prolonged exposure.
Once the person has been moved, call 911 or the National Poison Control Hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
Refrigerant poisoning is treated in the hospital emergency room. Doctors will monitor the affected person’s:
- heart rate
- blood pressure
A doctor may use many types of methods to treat internal and external injuries. These include:
- giving oxygen through a breathing tube
- drugs and medication to treat symptoms
- gastric lavage — inserting a tube into the stomach to rinse it and empty its contents
- surgical removal of burned or damaged skin
There are no medical tests available to diagnose Freon exposure. There are also no FDA-approved drugs to treat the poisoning. In the case of inhalant misuse, the affected individual may need to be hospitalized in a drug treatment center.
Refrigerant misuse is commonly called “huffing.” The chemical is often inhaled from the following products:
- an appliance
- a container
- a rag
- a bag with the neck held tightly closed
The products above are chosen because they can be:
- easy to find
- easy to hide
When misused, refrigerant chemicals can produce a pleasurable feeling by depressing your central nervous system.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the feeling produced by misusing inhalant chemicals like refrigerant is similar to the feeling caused by drinking alcohol or taking sedatives, along with lightheadedness and hallucinations.
The high only lasts a few minutes, so people who misuse inhalants often inhale repeatedly to make the feeling last longer.
What are the symptoms of misuse?
People who misuse inhalants like refrigerant might have a mild rash around the nose and mouth. Other symptoms include:
- watery eyes
- slurred speech
- an appearance of alcohol misuse
- irritability or excitability
- sudden weight loss
- chemical smells on the clothing or breath
- paint stains on the clothing, face, or hands
- lack of coordination
- hidden empty spray cans or rags soaked in chemicals
What are the health complications of misuse?
Along with a rapid “high,” and a feeling of euphoria, the chemicals found in refrigerant produce many negative effects on your body. These can include:
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle weakness
- depressed reflexes
- loss of sensation
Even people who misuse for the first time can experience devastating consequences.
A condition known as “sudden sniffing death” can occur in healthy people the very first time they inhale refrigerant. The highly concentrated chemicals can lead to irregular and rapid heart rates.
The irregular, fast heart rates can then lead to heart failure within minutes. Death can also occur due to:
- a fatal accident from driving while intoxicated
Some chemicals found in refrigerant stick around in your body for a long period of time. They attach easily to fat molecules and can be stored in your fatty tissue.
The buildup of refrigerant poison can negatively impact vital organs, including your liver and brain. The buildup can also become habit-forming. Regular or long-term misuse may also result in:
- weight loss
- loss of strength or coordination
- episodes of psychosis
- rapid, irregular heart rate
- lung damage
- nerve damage
- brain injury
The misuse of inhalant chemicals among adolescents has been rising steadily over the past few years.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that roughly 12.6 percent of eighth graders reported inhalant misuse in 2020. This figure is up from 9.5 percent in 2019.
Call Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at 1-800-662-HELP if you need information or advice about treatment, or if you are living with substance misuse and want help now. You can also visit www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.
Treatment for substance misuse is available for you or a loved one. Medically trained staff in an inpatient rehab center can help you. They can also address any underlying concerns that may have led to the substance misuse.
Recovery depends on how quickly you get medical help. Huffing refrigerant chemicals can result in significant brain and lung impact. The effects vary from person to person. The impact is not reversible even after the person stops misusing inhalants.
Sudden death can occur with refrigerant misuse, even the very first time.
Inhaling chemicals to get high is common in the United States because such chemicals are legal and easy to find.
Inhalant use among adolescents has been declining over the years. However, nearly 40,000 adolescents misuse inhalants on any given day, according to a 2014 report.
To help prevent misuse of refrigerant chemicals and other inhalants, limit access to them by keeping containers out of children’s reach. Attach locks to the appliances that require the chemicals.
It’s also important to educate people about the dangers and health risks of inhalant use. Some of these people include:
- other service providers
School and community-based education programs have resulted in a great reduction in misuse.
Communicate with your children about the risks of misusing drugs and alcohol. It can help to have an “open door” policy for these conversations.
Try to acknowledge the risks of substance misuse and know that it can happen to various people. So, be sure to reiterate that huffing can lead to death the very first time it’s done.
It’s important to understand and observe all safety procedures if you work with refrigerators or other types of cooling appliances.
Attend all trainings on appliances and wear protective clothing or a mask, if necessary, to minimize contact with refrigerant chemicals.