Agent Characteristics

  • APPEARANCE: Clear, colorless, gas. Clear, colorless liquid under pressure.
  • DESCRIPTIONFor the purposes of this card, ammonia refers to solutions that are 50% ammonia or greater, ammonia anhydrous, and ammonia anhydrous liquified, unless otherwise specified.
    Ammonia is a toxic gas or liquid that, when concentrated, is corrosive to tissues upon contact. Exposure to ammonia in sufficient quantities can be fatal. One of the highest production-volume chemicals in the U.S., concentrated ammonia is used in manufacturing, refrigeration, and agriculture (as a fertilizer). Household ammonia is much less concentrated; it rarely causes burns, but it does cause irritation. The lowest level at which humans can detect the odor of ammonia (odor threshold) generally provides sufficient warning of exposure; however, persons with prolonged exposure to ammonia will lose their ability to detect the odor (olfactory fatigue). Ammonia commonly exists as part of a solution.
    • Indoor Air: Ammonia can be released into indoor air as a liquid spray (aerosol) or as a vapor.
    • Water: Ammonia can be used to contaminate water.
    • Food: Ammonia is unlikely to contaminate food due to unpalatable qualities rendered to food.
    • Outdoor Air: Ammonia can be released into outdoor air as a liquid spray (aerosol) or as a vapor.
    • Agricultural: If ammonia is released into the air as a liquid spray (aerosol), it has the potential to contaminate agricultural products. If ammonia is released as a vapor, it is highly unlikely to contaminate agricultural products.
  • ROUTES OF EXPOSURE: Ammonia can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, eye contact, and skin contact. Ingestion is an uncommon route of exposure. Absorption by eye contact may be limited by severe corrosive injury and/or by significant spasmodic blinking (blepharospasm), even with mild exposures.

Clinical description

The majority of exposures occur by inhalation and typically lead to symptoms of ocular, nasal, and respiratory irritation. Signs and symptoms of poisoning might include eye redness and lacrimation, nose and throat irritation, cough, suffocation or choking sensation, and dyspnea (1-3).
Laboratory criteria for diagnosis

  • Biologic: No biologic marker is readily available for ammonia exposure or poisoning.
  • Environmental: Detection of ammonia in environmental samples.

Case classification

  • Suspected: A case in which a potentially exposed person is being evaluated by health-care workers or public health officials for poisoning by a particular chemical agent, but no specific credible threat exists.
  • Probable: A clinically compatible case in which a high index of suspicion (credible threat or patient history regarding location and time) exists for ammonia exposure, or an epidemiologic link exists between this case and a laboratory-confirmed case.
  • Confirmed: A clinically compatible case in which laboratory tests of environmental samples have confirmed exposure.

The case can be confirmed if laboratory testing was not performed because either a predominant amount of clinical and nonspecific laboratory evidence of a particular chemical was present or the etiology of the agent is known with 100% certainty.


Ammonia is found throughout the environment in the air, soil, and water, and in plants and animals including humans. Exposure to high levels of ammonia can cause irritation and serious burns on the skin and in the mouth, throat, lungs, and eyes. At very high levels, ammonia can even cause death. Ammonia has been found in at least 137 of the 1,647 current or former National Priority Sites list identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

What is ammonia?

Ammonia occurs naturally and is produced by human activity. It is an important source of nitrogen which is needed by plants and animals. Bacteria found in the intestines can produce ammonia.

Ammonia is a colorless gas with a very distinct odor. This odor is familiar to many people because ammonia is used in smelling salts, many household and industrial cleaners, and window-cleaning products.

Ammonia gas can be dissolved in water. This kind of ammonia is called liquid ammonia or aqueous ammonia. Once exposed to open air, liquid ammonia quickly turns into a gas.

Ammonia is applied directly into soil on farm fields, and is used to make fertilizers for farm crops, lawns, and plants. Many household and industrial cleaners contain ammonia.

What happens to ammonia when it enters the environment?

  • Ammonia is found throughout the environment in air, water, soil, animals, and plants.
  • Ammonia does not last very long in the environment. It is rapidly taken up by plants, bacteria, and animals.
  • Ammonia does not build up in the food chain, but serves as a nutrient for plants and bacteria.

How might I be exposed to ammonia?

  • Everyone is exposed to low levels of naturally-occurring ammonia in air, food, water, and soil.
  • You may be exposed to higher levels during use of cleaning products containing ammonia.
  • You may be exposed to higher levels if you apply ammonia fertilizers or live near farms where these fertilizers have been applied.
  • You may be exposed to high levels if you go into enclosed buildings that contain lots of animals (such as on farms).

How can ammonia affect my health?

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.

Swallowing concentrated solutions of ammonia can cause burns in your mouth, throat, and stomach. Splashing ammonia into your eyes can cause burns and even blindness.

How likely is ammonia to cause cancer?

There is no evidence that ammonia causes cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the EPA, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have not classified ammonia for carcinogenicity.

How can ammonia affect children?

Children are less likely than adults to be exposed to concentrated levels of ammonia because most exposures occur at work. The effects on children are likely to be the same as for adults. We do not know if exposure to ammonia causes birth defects, or if it can pass to the fetus across the placenta or to infants via breast milk.

How can families reduce the risk of exposure to ammonia?

  • Keep products that contain ammonia out of the reach of children.
  • Make sure there is adequate ventilation when you use cleaners that contain ammonia, and wear proper clothing and eye protection.
  • Never store cleaning solutions in containers that children might find attractive, like soda bottles.
  • Avoid farm fields after they have been treated with ammonia or ammonia-containing fertilizers.
  • Minimize exposure to ammonia in the workplace by wearing proper safety clothes and equipment, and by following safety rules.

Is there a medical test to show whether I’ve been exposed to ammonia?

There are tests to measure ammonia in blood and urine. These tests can not definitely determine whether you have been exposed because ammonia is normally found in our bodies.

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July 31, 2021
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