Ammonia: Exposure, Decontamination, Treatment

What Ammonia Is

  • Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen widely used in fertilizers and pharmaceuticals.
  • Ammonia occurs naturally and is produced by human activity. It is an important source of nitrogen, which is needed by plants and animals.
  • When ammonia comes into contact with moist tissues such as the eyes, throat, and lungs corrosive injury can result.
  • At room temperature, ammonia is a clear, colorless gas under normal conditions and can be dissolved in water. Ammonia can also be pressurized and cooled to change into a liquid so it can be stored and transported.
  • Ammonia can also be a clear, colorless liquid that dissolves in water.
  • Ammonia is a toxic gas or liquid that is corrosive to tissues upon contact.
  • Ammonia can be recognized by its pungent odor, which is like the odor of decaying fish.
  • Ammonia reacts with strong oxidizers, acids, halogens (including chlorine bleach), and salts of silver, zinc, copper, and other heavy metals.
  • Ammonia is also commonly used in a liquid form mixed with water, such as household ammonia.

How People Can Be Exposed to Ammonia

  • Household ammonia can release gas if it is mixed with certain other cleaning agents. DO NOT MIX HOUSEHOULD CLEANERS.
  • After a release of ammonia into the air, people can be exposed through skin or eye contact, or inhaling (breathing in) the ammonia gas.
  • Following release of ammonia into water, people can be exposed by touching or drinking water that contains ammonia.
  • While food or drink could become contaminated with ammonia, it is unlikely to be eaten or drunk because ammonia has a very bad odor and taste.
  • Ammonia gas is lighter than air, so it will rise.

Food Contaminated with Ammonia

  • Food not contained in glass or metal (such as plastic, paper, or cloth containers) that may have come into contact with liquid ammonia should be avoided.
  • If the food is in an undamaged sealed glass or metal container, it should not be affected by an ammonia release. Wash the outside of the container before using.
  • If the food smells, tastes, or looks unusual, avoid using the food.
  • Follow any directions by local authorities.

Signs and Symptoms of Ammonia Exposure

No health effects have been found in humans exposed to typical environmental concentrations of ammonia.

Exposure to high levels of ammonia in air may be irritating to your skin, eyes, throat, and lungs and cause coughing and burns. Lung damage and death may occur after exposure to very high concentrations of ammonia. Some people with asthma may be more sensitive to breathing ammonia than others.

Most people will smell a noxious odor or feel irritation that indicates exposure to ammonia, but exposure for a long time may affect their ability to sense the chemical.

Signs and symptoms depend on how much ammonia a person was exposed to, how the person was exposed, and the length of time of the exposure. Some people with asthma or other chronic lung diseases may be more sensitive to breathing ammonia than others. Symptoms of exposure to higher levels of ammonia include the following:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Coughing
  • Coughing up white to pink-tinged fluid (sign of pulmonary edema)
  • Blistering of skin
  • Burning sensation in the nose, throat, lungs, and eyes
  • Frostbite if exposed to liquified ammonia
  • Narrowing of the throat and swelling
  • Nausea
  • Permanent or temporary blindness
  • Skin pain
  • Skin redness
  • Vomiting

Exposure to ammonia in sufficient quantities can be fatal.

What to Do If Exposed to Ammonia

  1. Get away from the area where the ammonia was released and breathe fresh air. Make sure you understand your local emergency notification system if you have one. Refer to emergency broadcasts and local authorities for instructions.
    • If the ammonia release was outdoors, go indoors and shelter in place. Make sure windows are closed and ventilation systems are turned off to make sure the contamination does not come inside. If you cannot go indoors, leave the area where the ammonia was released.
    • If you cannot get away from the area where the ammonia was released, go to the lowest ground possible because ammonia is lighter than air and will rise.
    • If the ammonia release was indoors, get out of the building.
    • If the ammonia release was from household cleaners or chemicals, open windows and doors to the outside to let in fresh air. Leave the area until the gas has dispersed. Call the Poison Control Center for further assistance at 1-800-222-1222.
  1. Get it off your body right away!

Taking off all layers of clothing (including jewelry and accessories) and showering is the best method for removing ammonia from your body. Ideally, undress and shower immediately or as soon as you can, as described below. If you cannot take off all layers, take off as many clothes as you can.

    • If clothes are frozen to your body, do not try to remove until no longer frozen. Instead, begin washing with a lot of lukewarm water. Then remove your clothes.
    • Avoid pulling clothing over your head. If you must pull clothing over your head, close your eyes and mouth, and hold your breath so you don’t get ammonia in your eyes, nose, or mouth. Put clothes in a plastic bag. Drop clothes to the floor.
    • If you wear contact lenses, take them out and place them with your clothing. Do not put contact lenses back in.
    • First wash your hair, face, and hands, and then wash the rest of your body. Wash from your head to your feet, including armpits and groin, with a lot of lukewarm water and mild soap (if available) for several minutes. Finish with a plain water rinse. Try not to let the water run into your eyes, nose, or mouth. Do not scrub!
    • If your eyes are burning or you can’t see normally, flush your eyes for 10–15 minutes with lukewarm water. Do not use eye drops.
    • Dry your face, then tilt your head back and dry your hair, and then dry down your body. Use anything that will soak up water. Drop used things to the floor. Dress in any available clean clothes to prevent hypothermia. This is especially important if temperatures are cool.
    • If emergency response services are available, leave used items on the floor and report their location to emergency personnel. Move as far from the used items as possible. Otherwise, put on waterproof or heavy gloves that won’t let liquid seep through. Gather all used things from the floor, including your clothes, and put them in a plastic bag. Remove gloves and put them in the plastic bag. Close the plastic bag and place it in a second plastic bag. Close up the second bag also.
    • Do not put the bags in the regular trash! Place the bags in an area where other people are unlikely to disturb them and come in contact with ammonia. Inform local authorities of the location of the bags for pick up.
  1. Get help right away by calling 911, going to the hospital if local officials say it is safe to leave your home, or calling the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Treatment for Ammonia Exposure

No known antidote exists for ammonia exposure. Treatment consists of removing ammonia from the body as soon as possible and providing supportive medical care. Symptoms can be treated in a hospital setting or by trained emergency personnel.

If someone has ingested ammonia, do NOT induce vomiting.

Long-term Health Effects

While most people recover, survivors who inhaled large amounts may suffer long-term lung damage. In cases of eye contact, ulceration and perforation of the cornea can occur up to weeks or months after exposure, and blindness may result. Cataracts and glaucoma have been reported in persons acutely exposed.

Repeated exposure to ammonia, usually in the workplace, may cause chronic irritation of the respiratory tract. Multiple exposures to ammonia have produced chronic cough, asthma, lung fibrosis, and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), a chemical irritant–induced type of asthma. Chronic irritation of the eye membranes and dermatitis have also been reported.

For a comprehensive list of chemical agent information, see Chemicals A-Z.