Ammonia Uses and Benefits | Chemical Safety Facts

Ammonia

Ammonia, a colorless gas with a distinct odor, is a building-block chemical and a key component in the manufacture of many products people use every day. It occurs naturally throughout the environment in the air, soil and water and in plants and animals, including humans. The human body makes ammonia when the body breaks down foods containing protein into amino acids and ammonia, then converting the ammonia into urea.

Ammonium hydroxide – commonly known as household ammonia – is an ingredient in many everyday household cleaning products.

Ammonia is a basic building block for ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which releases nitrogen, an essential nutrient for growing plants, including farm crops and lawns.

Uses & Benefits

Ammonia in Fertilizer

About 90 percent of ammonia produced is used in fertilizer, to help sustain food production for billions of people around the world. The production of food crops naturally depletes soil nutrient supplies. In order to maintain healthy crops, farmers rely on fertilizers to keep their soils productive. Fertilizers also can also help increase levels of essential nutrients like zinc, selenium and boron in food crops.

Ammonia in Household Cleaning Products

On its own or as an ingredient in many household cleaning products, ammonia can be used to clean a variety of household surfaces – from tubs, sinks and toilets to bathroom and kitchen countertops and tiles. Ammonia also is effective at breaking down household grime or stains from animal fats or vegetable oils, such as cooking grease and wine stains. Because ammonia evaporates quickly, it is commonly used in glass cleaning solutions to help avoid streaking.

Ammonia in Industrial/Manufacturing Uses

When used as a refrigerant gas and in air-conditioning equipment, ammonia can absorb substantial amounts of heat from its surroundings.

Ammonia can be used to purify water supplies and as a building block in the manufacture of many products including plastics, explosives, fabrics, pesticides and dyes.

Ammonia also is used in the waste and wastewater treatment, cold storage, rubber, pulp and paper and food and beverage industries as a stabilizer, neutralizer and a source of nitrogen. It also is used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.

Safety Information

When using cleaning products containing ammonia, follow all instructions on the product label, make sure the area is well ventilated (open windows and doors) and wear proper clothing and eye protection. Ammonia exposure can irritate skin, eyes and lungs. Do not mix ammonia with chlorine bleach, as this produces toxic gases called chloramines. Exposure to chloramine gases can cause coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, irritation to the throat, nose and eyes or pneumonia and fluid in the lungs.

Swallowing a cleaning product that contains ammonia can burn the mouth, throat, and stomach and cause severe abdominal pain. If a cleaning product containing ammonia is accidentally ingested, read the product label for safety instructions, or call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222, and be sure to have the label from the cleaning product in hand.

Medical tests can detect ammonia in blood or urine. But because ammonia occurs naturally in the environment, people are regularly exposed to low levels of ammonia in air, soil and water, so these test results are not considered effective biomarkers of exposure. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) states that “no health effects have been found in humans exposed to typical environmental concentrations of ammonia.”

Answering Questions

What is ammonia used for?

About 90 percent of ammonia produced is used in fertilizer, to help sustain food production for billions of people around the world. Ammonia has other important uses; for example in household cleaning products and in manufacturing other products.

What is ammonia?

Ammonia, also known as NH3, is a colorless gas with a distinct odor composed of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms. It is produced naturally in the human body and in nature—in water, soil and air, even in tiny bacteria molecules. In human health, ammonia and the ammonium ion are vital components of metabolic processes.

What happens to ammonia in the environment?

Ammonia occurs naturally and is found throughout the environment in soil, air, and water. Ammonia also is renewed naturally as part of the nitrogen cycle that already occurs as plants fertilize. As a result of this natural process, ammonia does not last long in the environment, and it also does not bioaccumulate.

What does ammonia smell like?

Ammonia has a very distinct, pungent odor, described as similar to sweat or cat urine. Strong, briny cheeses like brie can also smell like ammonia. Cheeses even have small amounts of ammonia in them, as a natural by-product of the cheese aging process.

How might I be exposed to ammonia?

Ammonia occurs naturally in the environment, so everyone is exposed to low levels at one point or another. It is possible for a person to be exposed to higher levels of ammonia when using cleaning products containing ammonia, or if they live on or near farms where fertilizers are used. It’s also possible to be exposed to higher levels of ammonia if a person spends time in an enclosed building that contains lots of animals.

How can ammonia exposure affect my health?

No health effects have been found in humans exposed to typical amounts of ammonia that exist in the environment. Exposure to high levels of ammonia in air may be irritating to a person’s skin, eyes, throat, and lungs and cause coughing and burns.

For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible exposure to ammonia, call the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.