Ammonia poisoning

If ammonia gas is inhaled deeply, it can lead to death. But fortunately for most industrial workers, the contamination is seldom so severe.

Ammonia is a colourless gas, which can form a clear, colourless liquid under pressure. It has a pungent odour and is often used in industrial settings. Generally, its sharp smell alerts people to possible leaks.

Symptoms of ammonia exposure
If you have been exposed to ammonia – in gas or in liquid form - you will experience a burning sensation in the eyes, nose and throat. This will be followed by tears running from your eyes, a runny nose and coughing. Exposure to ammonia can be fatal if the gas is inhaled deeply.

More commonly, it causes eye and nose irritation, upper respiratory tract problems, as well as corrosive injuries, when brought into direct contact with the skin.

Breathing problems, such as airway obstruction, bronchospasm and also pulmonary oedema may be the result of inhaling ammonia. Repeated exposure can cause chronic irritation of the respiratory tract.

What to do in an emergency

  • When ammonia poisoning is suspected, victims should be led out of the contamination zone as quickly as possible.
  • It is important that those helping them should be wearing adequate protective clothing, so as not to become victims themselves.
  • Oxygen – if it is available - must be administered to victims while rescuers await the arrival of an ambulance.
  • If there has been skin contact with ammonia, it is essential that the skin be decontaminated as quickly as possible. Clothing must be removed and the skin must be flushed with water for at least 5 minutes.
  • Irritated eyes must also be flushed with plain or saline water for 5 minutes. Remove contact lenses if they are being worn by affected persons.

If any of the following people have been exposed to ammonia, they need immediate medical attention:

  • Those who have respiratory tract problems, such as asthma.
  • Those who show signs of severe inhalation exposure.
  • Those with eye or skin burns.
  • Those who have ingested ammonia.

Fortunately, people who are only exposed to ammonia gas and have not developed any of the above problems, are unlikely to develop any complications later. It may still be wise to see a medical practitioner, though. (Health24, May 2006)

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