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What's That Smell?  Freon

Freon Leaks

Exposure to Freon

Freon Health Effects

How Can I Tell if I Have a Freon Leak?



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What's That Smell? Freon


is a trade name for a class of chemicals (known as Chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's) used as a refrigerant in air conditioning systems. Freon is a gas at room temperature and a liquid when cooled or compressed. Freon gas is colorless, non-flammable and relatively odorless. Some Freons have an ether-like odor.

Commercially available Freons include:

  • R134A - Tetrafluoroethane (for autos)
  • R22 Chlorodiofluoromethane (for air conditioning)
  • R410A - Is and alternate/replacement for R22 due to R22's world wide phaseout since it is shown to deplete the Ozone Layer

Freon Leaks


gas is added to the compressor of the AC unit. This compressor is located outdoors on AC split-systems and inside wall-mounted residential units. Freon is added to a closed looped system and continuously recycled. Freon gas leaks can ocurr at the outdoor compressor or indoors as the Freonliquid is pumped into the AC unit.

     The Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) recommends the coolant level in your HVAC system be checked every year. A system that is only 10% low in coolant will not operate efficiently and can cost over 20% more on your monthly utility bills. Continued operation of your HVAC units with low coolant can damage your compressor.

     Freon is 4 times heavier than air and sinks to the ground/floor initially when a leak occurs. Freon will rapidly disperse due to its high volatility. Federal law prohibits adding Freon to a leaking system. Repairs to fix the leak must be completed prior to adding Freon as Freon has been shown to damage the Earth's protective Ozone layer.

Exposure to Freon


is dependent upon the amount of Freon in the system and the space/size of the area where the leak occurs. Representative quantities of Freon by type used include:
  • Car air conditioner... 1.2 - 3.4 pounds of R134.
  • Home wall-mounted AC... less than 1 - 2 pounds of R22
  • Residential/Commercial split systems... 3 pounds per ton of R22.

     Note: Freon is also used extensively in the food service industry during storage, processing and transport including supermarkets.

Freon Health Effects

     Reportedly, Freon does not have serious long-term health effects. It is not a carcinogen, mutagen or cause damage to the liver. It is primarily a simple asphyxiant which displaces oxygen causing dizziness and suffocation at very high concentrations. It has limited irritation effects. Persons with a history of heart problems are most at risk since it has been shown to cause irregular heart beats and palpitations in high concentrations.

How Air Conditioners Work

     Air conditioners work by removing heat from warm air in your buildings/homes and replacing it with cool air until the thermostat reaches the desired temperature. Freon provides cooling by:

  1. Compressing the Freon gas causing it to become hot (high pressure Freon) in the systems compressor.
  2. Passing the hot air through a series of coils to dissipate the heat and condense the gas into a liquid.
  3. Passing the Freon liquid through an expansion valve where it evaporates to become cold (low pressure Freon).
  4. This cold gas runs through a series of coils that allows the gas to absorb heat and cool down the air inside the building.

     HVAC units also help clean the air inside your facility by filtering the air of dust, pollen, mold spores and other allergens. Air conditioners also function as dehumidifiers as they take excess water vapor from the air and use it to help cool the unit.

How Can I Tell if I have a Freon Leak?

     Don't rely on a detectable odor. Look for frost-like buildup on the copper lines around the HVAC unit. Check to see if the HVAC unit is blowing warm air.

     If you discover you have a Freon leak, evacuate the building and contact your HVAC technician for immediate repairs. Windows and doors can be opened and fans used to bring fresh air into the building. If you feel any unusual health effects, seek medical care.


July 2009 - Salt Lake City, Utah... 6 treated after Freon leak from refrigeration compressor failure at Costco Warehouse.

June 2009 - Philippines... Thick smoke from a Freon leak in an overheating AC unit filled Fession Hall during official speech.

February 2009 - Raleigh, North Carolina... State laboratory of public housing building evacuated due to  Freon leak.

November 2008 - Russia... 20 People suffocate and 21 injured by Freon gas on Russian Submarine when vessels fire extinguishing system unexpectedly activate.

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