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How dangerous is ammonia?

March 21, 2022

Ammonia has leaked from a chemical plant in Ukraine. It's used in fertilizer. But it is poisonous and has a harsh smell.

Rescue workers at a brewerie in Germany after an ammonia leak
When there's an ammonia accidental here in Germany, rescue workers wear special protective clothingImage: Thomas Frey/dpa/picture alliance

Ukraine's civil defense reacted the only way it could and fast: When ammonia leaked from a chemical plant in Sumy in the northeast of Ukraine, authorities told local residents to seek shelter in cellars and ground floor apartments.

Ammonia is poisonous. As a gas, it is lighter than air and rises in the atmosphere. That's why it was best for residents to go down to lower ground and avoid inhaling any fumes.

Reports suggest that a Russian shell had hit the chemical plant, which is used to produce fertilizer — of which ammonia is fundamental component. The leak has been fixed.

What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a chemical compound consisting of nitrogen and hydrogen. It is one of the most produced chemicals in the world.

War in Ukraine threatens global food security

About 170 million tons of ammonia get produced every year, and 80% of that is used as a the base chemical for nitrogen fertilizer.

Ukraine is known as Europe's "granary" — it produces a lot of grain — and uses a lot of fertilizer. The country's black earth is fertile for cereal crop. 

Ammonia is also used in waste gas purification and as a refrigerant. In the future, ammonia may also be used in hydrogen and fuel storage systems.

A tractor sprays fertilizer in a field of winter crops
Ammonia is soften used to produce synthetic or nitrogen fertilizerImage: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS/ABACA/picture alliance

How dangerous is ammonia?

There are only ever few cases of ammonia poisoning. It has a nasty smell so you can tell it is in the air. You may know the smell from horse stables or freshly fertilized fields.

Sometimes, paramedics wake people who have fallen unconscious by holding an ammonia solution under their noses. The stink usually wakes them immediately.

But, if you inhale too much ammonia, it can be poisonous. The eyes, nose and throat burn, people feel they have to sneeze and cough, their eyes water and they may also have a headache. If it gets to extreme levels, people can experience problems breathing and chest pain. The only way to help is to inhale lots of fresh air and steam.

The potential of poison

How is ammonia produced?

Ammonia does come about naturally, but in limited amounts. Ammonia gas is produced through the decomposition of plants and animal excrement.

It is also produced in the human body and is useful in the production and degradation of amino acids. It is transported in the blood to the liver. To prevent ammonia levels getting too high in the liver, the gas is depleted via the urea cycle. You notice that when your urine smells strongly.

In the past, ammonia was produced for fertilizer by heating limestone and the compound ammonium chloride. Later, ammonia was produced industrially, using nitrogen and hydrogen and the Haber-Bosch process. This process involves the two gases reacting under high pressure, with a metal catalyst and a temperature of 450 degrees Celsius (842 degrees Fahrenheit).

This article was originally written in German.