While Freon leaks are rare, when they do occur, they can have a number of unpleasant effects on your health. If you have an older air conditioner or other appliance that uses Freon, it’s worth taking the time to learn how to keep your family safe in the event of a leak.
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Freon’s Role in Your Home
Freon is a name trademarked by The Chemours Company, the parent company of Dupont, for a number of chemicals used in cooling appliances such as air conditioners and freezers and as a propellant in aerosol cans. The most common type of Freon found in modern homes is Freon 22, known by the generic name of R-22 refrigerant.
Refrigerant is the gas used in air conditioners and heat pumps to transfer heat from the indoors to the outdoors (or the reverse in winter).
R-22 refrigerant is a chlorofluorocarbon gas that was commonly used from the 1930s until the late 1980s when it became clear that this gas contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer. Much of Freon’s reputation as a harmful substance comes from this fact.
Since that time, appliance manufacturers have been phasing out Freon in favor of the more environmentally friendly R-410A refrigerant. An appliance made after 2005 is unlikely to contain Freon, and one made after 2010 must not contain Freon by law.
How Freon Leaks Can Harm You
The only time Freon might end up outside your appliance is when a leak occurs due to accidental damage or vandalism. When this happens, the gas quickly escapes the system, so you don’t have to worry about a slow, low-level Freon leak in your home.
If you happen to be sitting near a leaking refrigerant line and don’t notice it, you might experience some symptoms of exposure. These include shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of coordination, and poor concentration. Skin rashes are another symptom, particularly for those with sensitive skin. Direct skin contact can cause a chemical burn or frostbite.
These symptoms will disappear once you’re away from the Freon. There are no known long-term health effects.
Children and small pets are more vulnerable to the effects of Freon partly due to their smaller body size and partly because Freon is heavier than air, so it forms higher concentrations closer to the ground. That means children and pets will experience health symptoms before any adults in the household.
The Risk of Refrigerant Poisoning
If you’ve heard of Freon causing serious health problems, you might be thinking of a condition known as refrigerant poisoning. This can occur when someone intentionally inhales Freon for a “high.”
Early symptoms include a headache, nausea, dizziness, and irritated eyes, nose, and throat. With continued exposure, the symptoms can progress to loss of consciousness, seizures, and eventually death.
A leak in your home doesn’t expose you to the high concentration of Freon needed to cause symptoms like these.
Act Quickly to Protect Your Health
Your air conditioner needs refrigerant to cool the air, so a Freon leak will quickly become obvious when you use the system. Try to cool your home with a leaky A/C, and you’ll notice:
- Your air doesn’t get as cool as it should.
- Your humidity stays higher than it should.
- The air conditioner’s indoor evaporator coils freeze over.
If you notice these signs, check both the outdoor condenser unit and the indoor air handler for the hissing sound made by escaping refrigerant. This sound is a sure sign there’s a leak in the A/C’s copper refrigerant lines.
After an earthquake or severe storm are other times you’ll want to inspect your refrigerant lines for damage, even if you haven’t noticed signs of one.
If you discover a Freon leak inside your home, first get all children and pets out of the house. Then open your windows and doors, and use a fan if available to blow the contaminated air outdoors. Call a technician to have the leak stopped and your system recharged with refrigerant.
Leaks are more likely to occur near the outdoor condenser unit, so signs of refrigerant loss don’t always mean you have a Freon leak in your home.
Vandalism is a common cause of outdoor leaks. Thieves might attempt to steal the valuable copper refrigerant lines in order to sell the metal as scrap and addicts might break the lines in an attempt to get high off the refrigerant.
Leaks can also occur underground, so if your air conditioner shows signs of leaking, contact a technician.
While a leak outdoors poses little threat to you, leaked Freon can harm plants and animals, as well as contribute to ozone layer damage. In addition, a low refrigerant level places strain on your air conditioner’s compressor, causing damage to this and other components. Run your A/C too long without enough refrigerant, and the system could fail completely.
A Freon leak inside your home can cause mild symptoms such as dizziness and shortness of breath, but these will generally show up only if you’re near the leak for an extended period. It’s also possible for your air conditioner to leak out all its refrigerant with no harm to you whatsoever.
Even so, if you notice signs of a refrigerant leak, whether from an old or new air conditioner, contact a technician immediately to protect your health, the environment, and your air conditioning system.