- The EPA is phasing out the use of Freon, the most common refrigerant used in virtually every cooling product.
- Freon has been used in Europe in the past to inactivate measles virus used in measles vaccines.
- Freon was initially hailed as a replacement for toxic chemicals such as ammonia, methyl chloride and sulfur dioxide.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is phasing out the production of Freon (R22)—the most widely known brand name for Chlorodifluoromethane, a stable, colorless, nearly odorless refrigerant gas of the chlorofluorocarbon family. It is used in a wide range of cooling environments, from refrigerators to freezers, all types of air conditioners, heat pumps, dehumidifiers, automobile and truck cooling systems, as well as ice machines, restaurant and all commercial coolers, and refrigerator warehouses and trucks.1 2
Freon 113 (Trichlorotrifluoroethane) was used in Europe in the past to inactivate measles virus used in measles vaccines, although the more toxic formalin (formaldehyde) has been more commonly used in the U.S. and globally to inactivate viruses and bacteria in vaccines because of its greater potency. Perhaps due to Freon’s less toxic effect, new research looking for a rapid method of creating a cross-reactive intranasal flu vaccine used the Freon-inactivation method to protect animal models from virulent influenza strains.3 4
In the early 20th century, the refrigerants used for cooling were highly toxic substances including ammonia (NH3), methyl chloride (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2), which were leaky and so dangerous that people often kept their refrigerators outside.5 Then, led by inventor Thomas Midgley, “chemical engineers at Frigidaire synthesized the world’s first chlorofluorocarbon, to which they gave the trademarked name Freon.” The introduction of Freon was enthusiastically embraced. Considered the “perfect refrigerant,” it was considered so safe that “at a demonstration before the American Chemical Society in 1930 Midgley inhaled a lungful of the stuff and then used it to blow out a candle.”6
Beginning with World War II, the chlorofluorocarbons also were used “to produce aerosols of insecticides,” an application that expanded over the next 50 years to include “foam blowing, precision cleaning, air conditioning, refrigeration, and propellants for medicinal, cosmetic, food, and general-purpose aerosols.”7
Chlorofluorocarbons and the Ozone Layer
Unfortunately, the emissions from all of those uses were found to have destructive consequences on the earth’s ozone layer, which protects the planet from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation, or UVBs. These UVBs are a major factor in the development of skin cancers and cataracts, as well as have been found to cause damage to DNA, crops, and marine life.8
When it was discovered that the aerosol chlorofluorocarbons were destroying the ozone layer, environmentalists and legislators in countries around the world reacted quickly, and most aerosol uses were banned in 1978.9 Legal limitations on the same chemicals for non-propellant purposes such as refrigeration or air conditioning did not begin to be in effect until January 1, 2015, and are expected to be completed by 2020.10
Health Risks of Low Level Inhaled Freon Exposure
Freon is a heavy gas and quickly evaporates if it escapes into the air and is not considered to be a carcinogen. Although low levels of inhaled Freon are not reported to be harmful because the gas evaporates quickly on exhalation, it is referred to as “a simple asphyxiant which displaces oxygen causing dizziness and suffocation at very high concentrations… and it has been shown to cause irregular heart beats and palpitations in high concentrations.”11
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, exposure may cause “irritation of the nose and throat, drowsiness, unconsciousness, and death… If the liquid gets on the skin or in the eyes, it may cause frostbite.”12
Even though environmental exposure to Freon has not been associated with liver problems, the Labor Department cautions against exposure for anyone with impaired liver function due to “the importance of that organ in the biotransformation and detoxification of foreign substances.”
Health Risks Associated With Refrigerant Abuse
Intentional inhalation of Freon is a very different story from the effects of minimal exposure that may occur with a Freon leak. Deliberate inhalation of Freon from air conditioning units, commonly called “huffing,” has become popular among teenagers and can be addictive.13 The Freon refrigerant is cheap and easy to find, often inhaled from an appliance, a rag, a plastic bag over the head, or a container.
The effect of deliberating inhaling Freon has been likened to drinking alcohol or taking sedatives, because of its effect on the central nervous system, but the effect is transient and users may inhale the substance repeatedly to try to maintain the “high.”14
What users may consider a mild and harmless game can have devastating and tragic consequences, including breathing problems, fluid buildup in the lungs, organ damage and death, even the first time it is tried.
Misuse or intentional inhalation abuse may cause death without warning symptoms, due to cardiac effects. Other symptoms potentially related to misuse or inhalation abuse are anesthetic effects, light-headedness, dizziness, confusion, incoordination, drowsiness, or unconsciousness, irregular heartbeat with a strange sensation in the chest, heart thumping, apprehension, feeling of fainting, dizziness or weakness. Vapors are heavier than air and can cause suffocation by reducing available oxygen for breathing.15
As described put by addiction specialists on the website Addiction.com,
Freon as an intoxicant works by driving oxygen out of the bloodstream, and it is this oxygen-depleted state that is responsible for the light-headed feelings of giddiness that huffers come to crave so desperately. But whether users realize it or not, the effects of this frigid gas on a living organism are biologically devastating, and anyone who willingly puts this substance in his or her body is playing with a cold, killing fire.16
1 National Refrigerants Inc. Safety Data Sheet: R22. April 2015.
2 What You Need to Know about the EPA’s Freon 22 Phase-Out. This is an air conditioning service; find an epa or government explanation.
3 Parisius W, Macmorine HG. Effects of Tween 80 and Freon 113 on Measles Virus. Applied Microbiol March 1969.
4 Haredy AM, Takenaka N, et al. An MDCK Cell Culture-Derived Formalin-Inactivated Influenza Virus Whole-Virion Vaccine from an Influenza Virus Library Confers Cross-Protective Immunity by Intranasal Administration in Mice. Clin Vaccine Immunol July 2013.
5 Bellis M. Freon. About.com Inventors Copyright 2016.
6 National Academy of Engineering. Air Conditioning and Refrigeration History – part 4. Greatest Achievements 2016.
7 Rusch GM. CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS. Encyclopedia of Public Health 2002.
8 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health and Environmental Effects of Ozone Layer Depletion. EPA.gov Feb. 8, 2016.
9 Byrd D. This Date in Science: Sweden Goes First to Ban Aerosol Sprays. EarthSky. Jan. 23, 2015.
10 Powell P. EPA Finalizes R-22 Phaseout Plan. ACHR News Nov. 3, 2014.
11 Accredited Environmental Technologies. What’s That Smell? Freon. AET Inc. Newsletters August 2009.
12 U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Helath Guideline for Difluorodibromomethane (Freon 12B2). DOL.gov September 1978.
13 CBS. Deadly trend: Teens huffing coolant out of air conditioning unit. CBS46.com Apr. 5, 2013.
14 Carey E and Cafasso J. Refrigerant Poisoning. Healthline Nov. 30, 2015.
15 Product Safety Summary Sheet. DuPont™ Chlorodifluoromethane. Oct. 1, 2012.
16 The Extreme Dangers of Freon Huffing. Addiction.com Apr. 12, 2013.