Are Freon Leaks Harmful or Toxic?

Written By Lester Mclaughlin
Updated On

Are you wondering if Freon leaks are harmful or toxic?

You’ve come to the right place!

In this Blue National HVAC guide, you’ll learn:

  • What a Freon leak is
  • The effects of Freon leaks
  • Signs you have a Freon leak
  • Symptoms of refrigerant poisoning

And much more!

Are Freon Leaks Harmful or Toxic

So, if you’re looking for answers to your questions about freon leaks, keep reading our detailed guide below to get answers to all of your questions!

What Is A Freon Leak?

Freon, also known as R-22 refrigerant, is a type of coolant commonly used in air conditioners until 2010. As of 2020, Freon is limited to stockpiles and recycled quantities only. 

If Freon comes in contact with your skin or if you inhale it, the health consequences can be severe, so reacting quickly in the event of a leak is vital. A leak is usually due to puncture holes in the air conditioning coils. However, it can result from poor installation, a factory defect, or corrosion. 

Although many homeowners think that Freon is used up slowly by an air conditioning unit, this is not the case and is a common misconception. A properly functioning unit will not deplete its coolant simply through use- unless it develops a leak.

New air conditioning units today do not contain Freon. Other types of refrigerants, including R-410A, R-407C, R-134a, R-32, and R-454B have replaced it. These refrigerants have a lower effect on the ozone layer, and are less impactful to global warming than their predecessors. 

What Are The Effects Of Freon Leaks?

Refrigerant leaks affect both the functionality of the unit and the safety of anyone inside the home. Freon leaks can be toxic when inhaled or when it comes in contact with the skin, but a leak will also cause the AC unit to function poorly. 

AC Unit Will Not Function Properly

A common cause of a malfunctioning AC system is a refrigerant leak. The air conditioning system relies on the coolant to kick out cold air in exchange for warm air, so when the system is low on refrigerant, the system has a much harder time cooling. 

You may notice that it takes much longer than usual to cool your home due to a lack of refrigerant within the unit.

Toxic For Those Inside the Home

Freon is toxic if you inhale it or if it comes in direct contact with the skin. Children and small pets are at a much higher risk of symptoms associated with Freon exposure, as they have smaller lungs and since Freon is heavier than air, it concentrates near the ground. 

The effects of Freon exposure are short-term and should dissipate after leaving areas that a Freon leak has contaminated. However, long-term exposure could be deadly.

What Are The Signs of A Refrigerant Leak?

Several telltale signs indicate a refrigerant leak. Recognizing these signs early on will help prevent Freon exposure and mitigate other issues associated with your air conditioning unit down the road.

AC is Not Cooling To The Proper Temperature

If your AC unit is sluggish when cooling your home, it may be a sign of a refrigerant leak. The refrigerant in an AC unit works to remove hot air in exchange for cool air, and if refrigerant levels are low, the system will not be as efficient.

Sudden Electric Bill Increase

Let’s say you notice an abrupt increase in your electric bill, even though there are no changes in use from the previous month or the same month last year. In that case, a refrigerant leak may be causing the high cooling bill. 

When the unit is cooling poorly, the typical reaction is to turn up the AC in an attempt to cool the house. If a leak is the culprit, you won’t get very far in cooling the home, but your electric bill will go through the roof.

Hissing Sound Coming From AC Unit

The majority of refrigerant leaks are due to pin holes, cracks, or punctures in the metal coils of the AC unit. As the refrigerant seeps through these gaps, a hissing or gurgling sound may occur. 

You can usually hear the noise from inside your home or nearby the condenser unit outside, but it varies based on the leak’s location. Unfortunately, cracks, punctures, and holes require a complete replacement of the coils to fix.

Frozen Evaporator Coils

Inside your AC unit are evaporator coils, and when a refrigerant leak occurs, they may freeze. The refrigerant cycles through the evaporator coils, absorbing heat along the way. 

Low refrigerant levels mean the evaporator coils absorb less heat than usual, resulting in condensation accumulation on the coils. This can lead to the coils freezing over.

To avoid frozen evaporator coils, you should regularly clean the evaporator coils. If left unattended, the buildup can lead to more significant problems. 

Vents Are Pumping Out Hot Air

If hot air is coming out of your vents, you might have a refrigerant leak. Low refrigerant levels in your air conditioning system may result in hot air pumping out of the vents in your home. 

Your AC unit is reliant on refrigerant to pump out cold air, so the lack thereof may be an explanation for hot air exiting the vents in your home.

What Are The Symptoms of Refrigerant Poisoning?

Symptoms of refrigerant or Freon poisoning range in severity, depending on the length of exposure and whether or not your skin came into contact with the refrigerant itself. Symptoms are primarily short-term. After relocating away from the Freon leak, the symptoms often go away. 

Since Freon is heavier than air, small children and pets are more vulnerable. High concentrations of Freon form closer to the ground, so adults will usually be the last to experience any health symptoms.

Mild Symptoms

Mild symptoms associated with a Freon leak will dissipate shortly after you leave the area contaminated by a leak. Symptoms may include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Coughing
  • Irritation of the mucous membranes, such as eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness 

Severe Symptoms 

If you experience prolonged exposure to Freon, symptoms become more severe. If prolonged exposure occurs, it is essential to seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms can include:

  • Irritation to the lungs
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Burns to the esophagus
  • Upset stomach
  • Lung failure
  • Brain damage
  • Death 

Skin Contact

If you come into direct skin contact with Freon, the results can be damaging. Necrotic skin lesions and tissue damage can develop upon contact with the skin. Chemical burns and frostbite are also common effects of Freon exposure to the skin. 

Can You Prevent A Freon Leak?

Preventing a refrigerant leak is possible. Although most leaks are due to accidents that damage the unit, regular maintenance and inspections can ensure that a leak is detected quickly or before it happens.

Regular Inspections

Avoidance of refrigerant leaks comes down to the care of your air conditioning unit. Ensuring you locate the leaks before they become a major problem is an important preventative method. 

An HVAC technician should examine the unit regularly and will be able to identify preemptive warning signs of a leak. 

Once they identify a potential problem, the HVAC technician will deal with the issue before it gets out of hand. For example, they can use a refrigerant leak detector to locate small leaks and repair them before they get larger.  

Routine Maintenance

Routine maintenance goes hand in hand with regular inspections. As the HVAC technician completes an inspection, they can recognize broken or faulty parts, such as a malfunctioning compressor, bent tube, or faulty thermal expansion valve that could cause a leak later on. 

Replacing damaged parts will ensure that the major components of the air conditioning system stay in excellent condition. 

Maintain Proper Refrigerant Levels

Refrigerant levels that are too high or too low can damage your air conditioning unit. Ensuring that the refrigerant is at an appropriate level is imperative for avoiding damage to the unit, which could result in a leak. 

Only EPA-certified HVAC technicians are licensed to handle refrigerant recharges. The reason is that refrigerants are not only harmful to your health but to the ozone layer and the environment too. 

When Should You Call An HVAC Professional?

To keep your HVAC system running smoothly and free of leaks, hire our HVAC professionals to complete routine inspections and maintenance on your air conditioning unit. We will ensure it is operating efficiently and fix any potential issues

Failing to address issues in a timely manner may lead to expensive and dangerous consequences, both in repairs and medical issues. 

In the event of a Freon leak, air out and evacuate the home immediately, as it can be very harmful to inhale the gas. Call our HVAC professionals as soon as possible, as they have years of training and are well-versed in safely handling refrigerant leaks.

Meet Your HVAC Expert

Lester Mclaughlin

HVAC systems are highly technical and often is the most misunderstood part of the house. From ductwork to heat pumps, I've been exposed to all sorts of issues facing homeowners. It really irks me when a homeowner is given bad advice like refilling freon vs fixing a leak in the system. I'm here to help our website readers with their heating and a/c problems.
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