Ammonia refers to a chemical gas formed by mixing Nitrogen and Hydrogen atoms. It also occurs naturally from the decomposition of organic matter, such as animals, animal wastes, and plants. Although classified as an extremely hazardous substance in the United States, ammonia’s wide use in the industrial and commercial spaces in the country makes it a potential risk concern.
When exposed to air, ammonia can evaporate quickly. Its pungent smell is not only foul, but also extremely harmful to humans.
Ammonia’s classifications are:
- Compressed Gas
- Flammable Gas
- Very Toxic
Uses of Ammonia
As we mentioned earlier, Ammonia also occurs naturally due to the decomposition of organic matter and found in air, water, and soil – mammals also produce it as part of their normal metabolism. Despite its extremely hazardous nature, Ammonia is very important for the survival of plants and animals. It is necessary for making DNA, RNA, and proteins in mammals.
It is used as a fertilizer to feed plants the necessary nitrogen they require; either directly to the soil in its purest form, or by producing fertilizers which usually contain ammonium salts. Other uses of ammonia include the production of synthetic fibers, plastics, explosives, and house-cleaning products.
Ammonia occurring in nature does not pose a threat to health because of its low concentrations. Whenever ammonia becomes a cause for concern, it’s likely by humans. In fact, the amount of ammonia humans produce in a year is almost equal to the amount produced by nature every year.
Effects of Ammonia
Ammonia carries alkaline properties and it is also corrosive. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in the air will immediately cause burning sensations in the throat, nose, and respiratory tract. It is potentially fatal if exposure last longs, turning a burning sensation into respiratory distress or failure.
Although the presence of Ammonia in the air will be immediately noticeable by an individual, it causes olfactory fatigue. Thus, the individual may be less aware when exposed to low concentrations.
“Ammonia is considered a high health hazard because it is corrosive to the skin, eyes, and lungs. Exposure to 300 parts per million (ppm) is immediately dangerous to life and health. Ammonia is also flammable at concentrations of approximately 15% to 28% by volume in air.”
— Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on ammonia’s threat to workers.
The presence of ammonia in the air will immediately cause rapid skin or eye irritation. When exposed to higher concentrations, it has the potential to cause severe injury and burns. It happens due to the formation of ammonium hydroxide when ammonia interacts with the available moisture in the skin, oral cavity, eyes, and respiratory tract.
These burns could be serious enough to cause permanent blindness, lung disease, or even death. Although it is unlikely for someone to ingest ammonia solution, the act results in corrosive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach. Conclusively, we can say ammonia itself isn’t bad. In fact, it is essential for some life on Earth, but very high concentrations of it can have fatal repercussions.
How to Treat Ammonia?
The good news is that ammonia’s effects are treatable. A majority of people recover by following an immediate decontamination procedure of the skin and eyes with water. Other treatments include administration of humidified oxygen, bronchodilators, and airway management, and intake of milk or water in cases of ingestion.
But in some cases, when medical assistance is still on the way, move the affected person away from the area. Since ammonia causes shortness of breath, don’t allow unnecessary physical exertion. In a case where ammonia comes into contact with the skin, flush the area with lukewarm water for about 5 minutes – follow the same procedure in case of eye contact – use sterile dressing to cover both eyes.
Storage and Handling Notes for Industries
On-site employees regularly exposed to the hazards of ammonia must be provided with appropriate safety gear. It includes the use of chemical safety goggles, gloves, aprons, boots, and a self-contained breathing apparatus. Employers must ensure the safety equipment works without failure.
Ammonia must always be stored in a cool and dry place, away from sunlight, ignition sources, and incompatible materials. It is not highly flammable, but containers of ammonia may explode when exposed to high amounts of heat. Always report leaks and spillage, and employees should never stay alone to challenge such situations. Proceed by immediately calling the hazardous waste operations and emergency response team.
Ammonia exposure is a serious hazard. The prevention of worksite incidents against ammonia can only happen if employees are appropriately trained to identify the hazards, as well as, how to respond.