Ammonia is a commonly used chemical in commercial and household cleaners. It is also used in petroleum refining, making medicines, disinfecting water, and refrigeration. In addition, it occurs naturally when materials such as manure or compost break down. Enough exposure to ammonia can cause severe damage to human skin, eyes, and lungs, but knowing the risks and how to avoid them will prevent these damages from happening.
CONSEQUENCES OF EXPOSURE
Certain levels of gaseous ammonia (measured in parts per million or ppm) can cause:
- 5–50 ppm
- A sharp smell (a good warning there is ammonia in the air).
- No injury from prolonged or repeated exposure.
- 134 ppm
- Irritation of nose and throat.
- 700 ppm
- Coughing, severe eye irritation, may lead to loss of sight.
- 1700 ppm
- Serious lung damage, death unless treated.
- 2000 ppm
- Skin blisters and burns within seconds.
- 5000 ppm
- Suffocation within minutes.
When anhydrous ammonia (the ammonia used in most commercial processes) comes in contact with water, it forms an alkali salt that can cause:
- Severe chemical burns on the skin.
- Skin that is chemically burned by ammonia is NOT capable of healing or replacing itself.
- Damaged tissue must be surgically removed.
- Extreme eye damage and blindness
If someone has been splashed with anhydrous ammonia, immediately and continually flush the affected area with water:
- Maintain a steady flow of water over the affected areas until the victim is delivered to medical help.
- Do not reuse the water–it has already absorbed the anhydrous ammonia.
- Have someone get more freshwater while you are flushing so you do not run out.
- If ammonia is splashed on clothing, remove the clothing and flush the skin with water for at least15 minutes.
SAFE WORK PRACTICES
- Use air supplying respirators in areas with high concentrations of ammonia.
- Wear unvented goggles to minimize ammonia exposure to the eyes. Consider not wearing contact lenses; gas could get trapped in the lenses and become fused to the eye.
- Wear gloves, long-sleeved shirts, and pants.
- Always wash hands before drinking, eating, or smoking.
- Carry a 6 or 8-ounce squeeze bottle of water with you for flushing. Have a large quantity of water somewhere nearby to use when the water bottle is used up.
- Always inspect hoses used for transporting ammonia for deterioration and replace them when needed.
- When transporting anhydrous ammonia, be sure to check the vehicle’s tires, gears, etc. and drive safely.
Knowing the consequences of exposure to ammonia, knowing how to respond to ammonia exposure, and knowing how to prevent ammonia exposure will help you avoid both minor and serious injuries in the workplace.