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General information on refrigerants

Public Health England is frequently contacted for public health advice following leaks of chemical refrigerants from refrigerators and freezers. The following frequently asked questions are intended to help members of the public who think that their domestic refrigerator or freezer is or has been leaking.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a refrigerator leak?
A refrigerator leak is the release of certain chemicals known as refrigerants used inside the appliance to create cold temperatures. These may be released in both gas and liquid form (1).

What are refrigerants?
Refrigerants are chemical cooling agents that are found in a number of both household and industrial appliances (1).

What appliances/devices contain refrigerants?
The following appliances/devices contain refrigerants: 

  • refrigerators and freezers
  • motor-vehicle air-conditioner-like appliances
  • room air conditioners (including window air conditioners and packaged terminal air conditioners)
  • packaged terminal heat pumps
  • dehumidifiers
  • under-the-counter ice makers
  • vending machines
  • drinking water coolers.

However in a domestic situation the most likely appliances to use refrigerants are refrigerators and freezers. Therefore the subsequent questions and answers will focus on domestic refrigerators and freezers.

What should I do if I suspect a refrigerator or freezer is leaking?
Follow the points below:     

  1. Ventilate and vacate the room.
    If there are no windows in the affected room, keep internal doors open, open the windows in nearby rooms and vacate the property.  

  2. Do not use any naked flames in the property.

  3. Turn the appliance off, if safe to do so.

  4. If possible, remove the faulty appliance to outside your property.

  5. If you have removed the leaking appliance to outside your property and opened the windows for at least 15 minutes, then you can re-enter the room.

  6. If you have serious concern for your safety or you feel unwell immediately after breathing in any gas then call 999.    

  7. If you or any other householders continue feel unwell then please contact your General Practitioner or NHS Direct on 0845 4647 or 111. 

What might cause refrigerants to leak?    
Refrigerants may be released when there is one or more of the following:

  • corroded pipework
  • failure of seals
  • failure of valves
  • blockages
  • damage caused to the appliance, such as by defrosting your freezer with a sharp implement.

How do I know if my refrigerator or freezer is leaking refrigerants?
There may be evidence of a liquid or gas escaping from the fridge, e.g. a pool of liquid, a cloud of vapour or an unusual noise e.g. hiss of gas or mechanical fault. In some cases you may be able to smell the refrigerants, for example ammonia has a sharp pungent odour. You may also notice that the refrigerator/freezer isn`t keeping items as cold as it normally would.

What refrigerants could be present in a domestic refrigerator/freezer?
Common refrigerants include ammonia(2), carbon dioxide(2), hydrocarbons(2), hydrochloro/chlorofluoro-carbons(1) (2) and isobutane(2). However it is unlikely that all of these refrigerants will be found in the same appliance, instead there may just be one or two refrigerants present in a refrigerator/freezer.

Check the manufacturer’s handbook to identify the refrigerants in your appliance, you may also be able to search your  appliance’s make and model on the internet. If you are unable to identify the refrigerants in your appliance you can still refer to the questions on this page, particularly What should I do if I suspect a refrigerator/freezer is leaking? 

How could I be exposed to refrigerants?
You are unlikely to be exposed to refrigerants unless your refrigerator/freezer has leaked. The main risk is that once released into the atmosphere refrigerants that are present as a gas can be breathed in.

Liquid refrigerants may also leak from an appliance. Do not touch pools of refrigerants, remove contaminated clothes, and contact the Environmental Health department of your local authority for advice on how to clean up the pool. 

Is there any risk of a fire or explosion following a refrigerator leak?
Some refrigerants are flammable or explosive, therefore if you suspect a refrigerant leak extinguish any naked flames and avoid causing any sparks. Table 1 identifies common refrigerants and whether they are flammable or explosive.

Table 1. Common refrigerants (2) and whether gas/air mixtures are flammable or explosive
Refrigerant Flammable/explosive
Ammonia Flammable in high concentrations (3)
Hydrocarbons e.g. isobutane Yes (2)(4)
Fluorinated hydrocarbons e.g. 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane No (5)
Carbon dioxide No (6)

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons

No (1)

Will refrigerants affect my health?
If you have breathed in refrigerants you may feel unwell, also if you have touched a liquid refrigerant you may have either a burn or frostbite. Table 2 identifies the likely health effects from breathing in low levels of refrigerants or touching liquid refrigerants.

If you have immediate concerns for your health or safety call 999. In a non-emergency situation if you or anyone feels unwell as a result of a refrigerant leak, go outside away from the appliance and seek medical advice by calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647, or by contacting your General Practitioner (GP).

A one off exposure to low levels of refrigerants is unlikely to have any long-term effects on health. 

Table 2. Common refrigerants (2) and their effects on health following a low level exposure via breathing in refrigerant gases and liquid refrigerants in contact with the skin.

Refrigerant

Health effects from breathing in the refrigerants as gases

Health effects from skin contact with liquid refrigerants

Ammonia Burning sensation to eyes and throat
Cough
Laboured breathing
Shortness of breath
Sore throat (3)
Deep burns (3)
Hydrocarbons e.g. isobutane

Headaches
Ringing in ears
Respiratory irritation
Dizziness
Drowsiness (4)

Frostbite
Burns (4)

Fluorinated hydrocarbons e.g. 1,1,1,2-tetrafluoroethane

Headache
Dizziness
Respiratory irritation
Disorientation
An irregular heart beat
Raised pulse (5)

Frostbite
Defatting of the skin
Irritation
Contact dermatitis (7)

Carbon dioxide

Dizziness
Headache
Elevated blood pressure
Increased heart rate (6)

Frostbite (6)

Hydrochlorofluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons

Headache
Dizziness
An irregular heart beat
Confusion
Drowsiness(1) (8)

Frostbite
Contact dermatitis(8)

If I have been exposed to refrigerants will I develop cancer?
A one off exposure to low levels of refrigerants is unlikely to have any long-term effects on health.

However, if you have any concerns over your health following a refrigerator leak, seek medical advice by calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647 or 111 or by contacting your General Practitioner (GP).

Can refrigerants affect young children or the unborn child?
A one off exposure to low levels of refrigerants is unlikely to have any long-term consequences on children or the unborn child. However if you have any concerns over your child’s health following a refrigerator leak, seek medical advice by calling NHS Direct on 0845 4647 or 111 or by contacting your General Practitioner (GP).

When can I re-occupy the affected room?
If you have removed the leaking appliance to outside your property and opened the windows for at least 15 minutes, then you can re-enter the room. However if you have further concerns about when you can enter the room, you can contact a refrigeration engineer or your Fire and Rescue Service for further advice.

Which organisations could be involved?
Depending on the situation there are a number of organisations which could be involved in the event of a refrigerant leak, including:

  • the emergency services (e.g. Fire and Rescue Service and Ambulance Service) to ensure that immediate safety and health are protected
  • Public Health England may liaise with the emergency services to advise on public health effects from the chemicals involved
  • insurance companies may be involved in trying to replace the faulty appliance
  • the local authority may be involved in disposing of the appliance
  • a qualified refrigerator service engineer or the appliance manufacturers support telephone service may be able to assist in diagnosing a leak, however if you have serious concerns for your safety then call 999 or you feel unwell as a result of breathing in any gas seek medical assistance.

How do I dispose of an appliance that has leaked?

Refrigerators and freezers need to be disposed of as hazardous waste. Householders must ensure they only pass their waste to a registered waste carrier or other approved person (9). Householders can:

  • if it is a faulty appliance, ask the retailer if they'll take it back
  • take old appliances to their local household waste recycling centre (see http://www.direct.gov.uk to identify your nearest centre)
  • arrange for their local authority to collect the equipment (some local authorities provide a free collection service and others charge, see http://www.direct.gov.uk to find your local authority)
  • arrange for an electrical retailer delivering new equipment to take away the old appliance.

References

(1) Taye A, Wynne-Evans E, Emerson B, Biles T and Keshishian C. 2011. Investigation of chemical leaks form refrigerators in healthcare settings in London. Chemical Hazards and Poisons Report Issue 19. [external link]

(2) Pearson FS. Refrigerants past, present and future. Review article, International Institute of Refrigeration, Bulletin 2004-3. Available at http://www.iifiir.org/en/doc/1055.pdf [external link]

(3) Pritchard JD. 2011. Health Protection Agency Compendium of Chemical Hazards: Ammonia version 4.

(4) Right Answer Knowledge, Hazard Text documents. Isobutane. Accessed on 13/07/2012.

(5) Right Answer Knowledge, HSDB Data Bank. 1,1,1,2–Tetrafluoroethane. Accessed on 13/07/2012.

(6) CHAPD HQ. 2010. Health Protection Agency Compendium of Chemical Hazards: Carbon dioxide version 1.

 

(7) Right Answer Knowledge, Hazard Text documents. Fluorinated hydrocarbons. Accessed on 13/07/2012.

 

(8) Toxbase. CFC. www.toxbase.org [external link] Accessed on 13.07.2012.

 

(9) Environment Agency. Waste: Householders. http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/topics/waste/32096.aspx  [external link] Accessed on 13.07.2012.