From 2004 to 2018, more than 10,500 people lost their lives due to heat-related health conditions. That puts the average fatality rate of heat illnesses at 702 cases per year. That also makes extreme heat one of the deadliest natural disasters.
For this reason, experts recommend staying in air-conditioned rooms during really hot days. That shows how air conditioners can indeed be a life-saver.
However, an AC Freon leak can also be a health detriment and, in some cases, even deadly.
What exactly is “Freon,” though, and how can it be dangerous? How do you even tell that your air conditioner is leaking this substance?
We’ll answer all these questions in this guide, so be sure to read on!
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A Primer on Freon
“Freon” is actually a trademark name for several refrigerants used in air conditioners. Among the most popular are the hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) called “HCFC-22.” HCFC-22 also goes by the name “R-22,” wherein the “R” stands for “refrigerant.”
The US has banned the production and importation of new R-22 supplies since January 2020. This is in line with the HCFC Phaseout, which is part of the Clean Air Act Regulations. However, reclaimed R-22 supplies are still available for owners of older AC models.
The main reason for the ban is that R-22, as an HCFC, is a Class II ozone-depleting substance. These substances can destroy the stratospheric ozone. The ozone layer, in turn, protects living things from deadly ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
As you can see, there’s some irony here. Air conditioners can protect people from heat-related illnesses. Conversely, the HCFCs they use can also cause diseases, such as skin cancer, by depleting the ozone.
Potential Human Health Effects of an AC Freon Leak
Freons used in air conditioners and refrigerators contain a mix of fluorinated hydrocarbons. These substances are tasteless, almost colorless, nearly tasteless, and quite volatile. These characteristics make them difficult to detect in normal conditions.
This near undetectability makes Freons especially dangerous to those exposed to them. In fact, more than 30 US workplace accidents (some of which led to fatalities) are specific to Freon.
With all that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the dangers of a Freon leak.
Mild to Moderate Refrigerant Poisoning
Freons and many other refrigerants are volatile, so they can evaporate fast. This is why inhalation is the most common exposure method to an AC refrigerant leak. At very low concentrations, breathing in Freon gas can irritate the eyes, ears, and throat.
Vomiting, coughing, and dizziness are some other signs of a low-dose AC Freon leak exposure. You may also develop headaches as a result of inhaling some vaporized Freon. Touching liquid Freons can also cause frostbites and chemical burns.
Severe Freon Poisoning
Many refrigerant types, including Freons, are simple asphyxiants. This means that they deprive the body (and its tissues) of oxygen. This is how Freon gas exposure can cause coughs and headaches at low doses.
However, high-dose exposure to leaking Freons can lead to epithelial lung tissue irritation. When this happens, the lung’s epithelium (tissue lining) can produce excess mucus. This can result in you developing cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose.
Excess mucus production can also put you at risk of respiratory infections. Worse, the longer this goes on, the more fluid that can build up within the lungs.
Severe refrigerant poisoning can also damage the food pipe (esophagus). Patients may feel like their food pipe is “burning.” The damage can be severe enough to cause bloody vomits or bloody stools.
People who inhale Freon gases at high concentrations may also feel “high.” This can also result in decreased mental status, palpitations, and irregular heartbeat. Sometimes, loss of consciousness or even seizures may follow.
Some cases of skin exposure to Freon can also result in full-thickness burns. In one study, severe Freon-caused burns occurred after superficial burns. As such, frostbites or minor burns can progress into more severe burns.
Spotting the Signs of an AC Freon Leak
You can avoid the dangers of an AC refrigerant leak with regular expert AC maintenance. However, you should also understand that even well-maintained units can spring a leak. For this reason, it pays to know the symptoms of a refrigerant leak so that you know when to call the experts.
The Indoor AC Unit Drips Water
A refrigerant leak can cause your AC’s evaporator coils to form actual ice. The ice can then thaw due to warm air and the heat generated by your air conditioner’s motor.
If you notice your AC (or its indoor unit) dripping a lot of water, take that as a sign of a potential Freon leak. Call your local HVAC specialists as soon as possible. This way, you can avoid not only refrigerant hazards but also possible water damage.
Freon leaks, by themselves, are hard to spot, considering that they’re gases. However, a leaking refrigerant line can produce audible cues, such as buzzing. You may also hear whistling or hissing noises.
If you notice any of these sounds, get in touch with your local AC repair specialist. This is even more important if a loss of cooling power accompanies the weird noises. After all, your AC relies on refrigerants to cool warm air, so a lack of Freon can lead to insufficient cooling.
Get Those AC Leaks Fixed Before They Cause More Havoc
As you can see, an AC Freon leak can cause harmful health effects even in low concentrations. There’s also the possibility that a refrigerant leak can result in water damage. All that should be enough for you never to underestimate refrigerant leaks.
So, for your own safety and peace of mind, keep your AC well-maintained and call the pros in if you suspect a Freon leak.
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