You may, or may not have come across, the name Freon®, but you’ve certainly benefited from its use. It has two main uses that stretch across society – as a coolant that aids refrigeration and as an aerosol propellant that appears in everything from nail polish removal to deodorant. But should we have heard of Freon®? Is it a fire risk that we’ve introduced, unknowingly, into our lives? Let’s find out.
Freon® won’t catch fire and, in fact, if it’s used in air conditioning or heating, the design of the equipment ensures that you cannot use a flammable refrigerant in them.
That doesn’t mean that the use of Freon® is risk-free. It is, generally, shipped compressed and in canisters, if these canisters are heated, the Freon® may expand enough to cause them to explode. Here’s what you need to know.
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Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Freon®?
Freon® is, in fact, a fully registered trademark for a group of “halocarbons” (that is they contain a halogen atom or atoms and a carbon atom or atoms) that is owned by The Chemours Company, which was spun off from the Du Pont Chemical group in 2015.
The halocarbons are used for refrigeration and as aerosol propellants and they’ve been selected for that use because they don’t burn easily, they are very stable, and tend to have low (or no) toxicity for humans and animals.
That doesn’t mean that Freon® is always a good thing. In fact, the group of halocarbons includes chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These chemicals achieved notoriety in the mid-80s and beyond when it became apparent that they were responsible for the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer.
The ozone layer is, of course, the shield that protects all life on the planet from the UV radiation in the sun’s rays, and its loss, at least in part, is responsible for the phenomenon known as “climate change”.
Freon® also includes the HCFCs which are also known to cause ozone depletion.
These two groups of chemicals, CFCs and HCFCs, were banned from sale or had their uses severely restricted from 1987 when the Montreal Protocol was adopted globally and are also controlled by terms of the Kyoto Protocol to prevent global warming.
Most of the chemicals that fall under the brand name Freon® have a strong scent and it’s similar to acetone, the chemical used for cleaning dry wipe boards among other things.
How Is It Used?
As we’ve already noted, by far, the main uses for Freon® are refrigeration and aerosol manufacture and while CFCs and HCFCs are no longer used in these processes, other chemicals under the Freon®® brand have replaced them.
Some forms of Freon® are also used in the manufacture of medicines including in asthma inhalers, and as a vapocoolant spray (this allows you to freeze boils, abscesses, and the like prior to lacerating the surface tissue) and research is continuing into the potential to use Freon® as a form of anesthetic.
Is Freon® Flammable or Explosive?
The fact that Freon® doesn’t burn easily means that is categorically not-flammable. Flammable refers to liquid substances that burn at relatively low temperatures, Freon® doesn’t meet this definition.
Nor is Freon® considered to be combustible due to its ability to resist being burned.
However, Freon® is potentially explosive and not because it involves burning Freon® but because Freon® is shipped in canisters and if heated enough, the Freon® inside will expand and eventually tear through the canister causing an explosion.
This means that, as with all canisters, care must be taken in the storage of Freon® but a Freon® leak would not be considered an explosion hazard in its own right.
Can It Catch Fire?
The bonds between the individual atoms in Freon®, no matter what the precise formulation, tend to be very strong, and thus, it’s hard to break the molecules down so that they will burn.
Under normal circumstances, Freon® will not catch fire in the air and it certainly won’t catch fire easily under any circumstances.
Is Liquid Freon® Flammable?
Liquid Freon® is, as with almost all liquids, less flammable than Freon® gas, and given that Freon® gas is not flammable, neither is liquid Freon®.
What Temperature Does Freon® Turn To Liquid?
Freon® is prized for its use in refrigeration because of the temperature at which it evaporates and condenses.
It removes heat from a room by using the heat supplied from the room to evaporate (a process that takes place between 40- and 50-degrees Fahrenheit).
It then flows through the air conditioning unit to be placed under pressure, which causes the temperature to fall and for the Freon to expel the heat energy which can then be blown out of the air conditioner.
Freon® is chemically inert, so it can repeat this process thousands of times without reacting with anything, but it will, slowly over time, leak slightly from any refrigerated system which means that eventually, it will need to be topped up or replaced.
It’s worth noting that this “leakage” is a very gradual process and at no point, even in a poorly ventilated space, will the Freon® build up in the air in any significant quantity.
As such, you will not be able to smell Freon® leaking out of the system, which is pretty handy given the strong odor of Freon® – it would make living in an air-conditioned environment pretty stinky, otherwise.
What Happens If You Bust A Freon® Line?
“Busting a Freon® line” is a colloquialism for causing a large-scale Freon® leak.
Is A Leak Dangerous?
Yes, a Freon® leak is dangerous.
While in ordinary use Freon® is mainly non-toxic, it can, in large quantities cause “refrigerant poisoning”.
Can Smelling Freon® Hurt You?
Yes, though a little whiff of Freon® probably won’t hurt, if you were foolish enough to try and inhale large quantities of Freon® for a “high” or unlucky enough to get caught in a large-scale leak – it can lead to refrigerant poisoning.
Signs of Freon® Poisoning
Freon® poisoning or coolant poisoning or refrigerant poisoning or fluorinated hydrocarbon poisoning or the even less happy “sudden sniffing death syndrome” is caused by inhaling too much refrigerant.
While in small doses Freon® is not toxic, in larger quantities, there is a real risk of serious poisoning.
Symptoms of Freon® poisoning include:
- Swelling in your respiratory system (throat and/or sinuses)
- Difficulty drawing breath
- Pain (which can be very severe) in the throat, sinuses and nose
- Burning sensations in your nose, on your lips, in your eyes, in your ears and even on your tongue
- The loss of your eyesight
- Very severe stomach pains
- Vomiting and nausea
- Feelings similar to heartburn or indigestion
- Blood appearing in your stool or your vomit
- Your heartbeat becomes irregular
- Fainting or passing out
- Feelings of weakness
- Skin irritation (this can include developing burns or seeing holes appear in the skin)
Not everyone with Freon® poisoning will experience every symptom and a number of these symptoms in an environment where Freon® poisoning is possible should be enough to sound the alarm.
How Do You Treat Freon® Poisoning?
The very first thing to do is get away from the source of the Freon®, ideally, get outside and start breathing clean air.
Then call 911 and share as much data about the incident as you can: including the poisoned individual’s age, weight, and general health, their current condition, the exact chemical name of the refrigerant, and any safety sheet details you may have, whether the Freon® was swallowed or inhaled or both and how much you believe they were exposed to.
Health professionals treating Freon® poisoning will then monitor vital signs to see if the poisoned person is getting better or worse.
In addition, they can use many different types of treatment and these can include: IV fluids, medication, stomach pumping, antidotes to the Freon®, cleaning or removing damaged skin, and supplying oxygen.
It is vital if you have been a victim of Freon® poisoning that you seek immediate medical attention, if untreated it can leave your brain damaged, and within as little as 72 hours, it may also be fatal.
Can An Old Air Conditioner Explode?
Freon® based air conditioners cannot explode as the Freon® is not combustible but some older air conditioners may use a refrigerant like propane instead of Freon®.
If they use a flammable refrigerant like propane then it is possible that the air conditioner could explode on contact with flames or sparks.