Exposure to small amounts of R134a often produce no effect, but this fickle chemical can also cause harm or death in certain circumstances. The Environmental Protection Agency considers R134a fairly benign, reports that toxicity is very low for acute and subchronic inhalation, and does not consider R134a a developmental toxin, or genotoxic. Automotive professionals as well as do-it-yourself vehicle owners who risk accidental exposure to R134a in the course of vehicle repairs should make themselves aware of the dangers despite the green light from the EPA, since certain situations can make R134a dangerous to health.
Inhalation of Vapor
Problems from inhalation of R134a depend on the dose; small amounts will not harm the lungs. Acute inhalation of larger amounts becomes more worrisome, causing symptoms including temporary nervous system depression, with accompanying drowsiness, lethargy and insensitivity to pain. Prolonged breathing of vapors can cause cardiac irregularities, unconsciousness and death.
The vapor dilutes the concentration of oxygen in the air to levels low enough to cause harm. R143a vapor is heavier than air and could accumulate in low lying areas like vehicle maintenance pits. Enclosed areas such as repair bays could also accumulate vapors. According to the EPA, Long-term exposure at very high concentrations, defined as 50,000 ppm, has been shown to cause benign tumors in rats. Manufacturers recommend maximum exposure levels are well below the study levels, at 1,000 ppm.
Contact with R134a in liquid form can cause freeze burns on the skin, or eye damage if splashed in the eye. Skin or eye contact with vapor has no known effect. Wear safety goggles, gloves and shoes when there is the possibility of exposure to liquid R134a. If liquid contacts the skin, place the frostbitten part in warm water, and exercise the affected area while warming it. If eye exposure occurs, flush with large quantities of tepid water or sterile saline solution and seek medical attention.
Routes of Exposure
Several typical activities performed at auto repair facilities can cause exposure to R134a. Recharging or recovery of refrigerant in the course of servicing air conditioning systems in vehicles can cause R134a to escape. Major repairs can cause accidental damage to the air conditioning system exposing workers to R134a. Accidental perforation of refrigerant containers can occur during use or when moving containers to and from storage. Another route of exposure occurs during the recovery of a wrecked vehicle with front end damage that causes the condenser to leak.
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