Understanding Ammonia Flammability: Demystifying the Common Industrial Chemical

Unraveling the Science and Safety of Ammonia

Key Takeaways:

  • Ammonia is a common industrial chemical with numerous applications and a notable natural presence.
  • Despite being not highly flammable, ammonia containers can explode when exposed to high heat.
  • Exposure to ammonia can lead to significant health effects, and understanding its behavior and properties is key for safe handling.
  • Ammonia’s mechanism of action involves the formation of caustic ammonium hydroxide upon contact with moisture.
  • Immediate decontamination with water is crucial following exposure to ammonia.

The Basics: What is Ammonia?

Ammonia (NH3) is a frequently produced industrial chemical across the United States. It is used in various sectors of commerce and industry, existing naturally in the environment and within humans. A vital participant in many biological processes, ammonia is also essential for amino acid and nucleotide synthesis. In the environment, bacteria produce ammonia in the soil as part of the nitrogen cycle. Ammonia also results naturally from the decomposition of organic matter, such as plants, animals, and animal wastes.

Physical and Chemical Properties of Ammonia

As a colorless gas with a pungent and suffocating odor, ammonia can be highly irritating at room temperature. It is known as anhydrous ammonia in its pure form and is hygroscopic, which means it readily absorbs moisture. Ammonia exhibits alkaline properties and can be corrosive.

Ammonia gas can dissolve easily in water, forming ammonium hydroxide. This solution is caustic and behaves as a weak base. Easily compressible, ammonia gas can form a clear liquid under pressure. While ammonia is not highly flammable, containers of ammonia may explode when exposed to high heat.

Applications of Ammonia

Industry utilizes about 80% of ammonia as fertilizer in agriculture. Ammonia also finds application as a refrigerant gas, for water supply purification, and in the production of explosives, plastics, textiles, pesticides, dyes, and other chemicals. Ammonia is an ingredient in many household and industrial-strength cleaning solutions.

Exposure to Ammonia

Most people’s exposure to ammonia comes from inhaling the gas or its vapors. Given its natural presence and inclusion in cleaning products, exposure may occur from these sources. The widespread use of ammonia in agriculture, industry, and commercial locations also implies that accidental releases or deliberate terrorist attacks can cause exposure.

Ammonia’s Mechanism of Action

Upon contact with available moisture such as in the skin, eyes, oral cavity, respiratory tract, and especially mucous surfaces, ammonia instantly interacts to form the very caustic ammonium hydroxide. This causes tissue necrosis through the disruption of cell membrane lipids, leading to cell destruction. As cell proteins break down, the resultant water extraction triggers an inflammatory response causing further damage.

Health Effects of Ammonia Exposure


High concentrations of ammonia in the air cause immediate burning of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract. This can lead to bronchiolar and alveolar edema, and respiratory distress or failure. Inhalation of lower concentrations can cause coughing and nose and throat irritation.

Skin or Eye Contact

Exposure to low concentrations of ammonia in the air or solution can cause rapid skin or eye irritation. Higher concentrations may cause severe injuries and burns. Contact with concentrated ammonia solutions, such as industrial cleaners, can cause corrosive injuries, including skin burns, permanent eye damage, or blindness.


Swallowing ammonia solution can result in corrosive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach. However, ingestion does not usually lead to systemic poisoning.

Treatment for Ammonia Exposure

While there’s no specific antidote for ammonia poisoning, its effects can be treated, and most people recover. Immediate decontamination of the skin and eyes with copious amounts of water is crucial. Treatment includes supportive measures and may involve the administration of humidified oxygen, bronchodilators, and airway management.

Laboratory Tests and Ammonia Exposure

Laboratory testing for ammonia exposure may not aid in making emergency treatment decisions. Tests that can detect ammonia in blood or urine are available, but as ammonia is typically found in the body, these results cannot act as biomarkers of exposure.

The Flammability Factor: Ammonia Under Heat

An intriguing characteristic of ammonia is its flammability or rather, its lack thereof. While not highly flammable, containers of ammonia may explode when exposed to high heat. This discrepancy can lead to confusion regarding the safety of handling and storing ammonia.

In reality, the likelihood of ammonia combustion is relatively low compared to other commonly used industrial gases. However, when the gas is confined within a container, the risks associated with heating can increase substantially.

When a container filled with ammonia is subjected to high heat, the pressure inside the container can rise dramatically. If the pressure reaches a level that the container can’t withstand, an explosion can occur. This doesn’t necessarily mean the ammonia has combusted, but rather, the force from the rapid release of pressurized gas can cause the container to rupture explosively.

Understanding the characteristics and behaviors of ammonia is vital in the safe handling and use of this common industrial chemical. Its low flammability, combined with the potential for high-pressure explosions when heated, underlines the need for caution when working with this substance. As with any potentially hazardous material, proper training, equipment, and safety protocols are key to preventing accidents and ensuring the safe use of ammonia in all its applications.

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