Freon is the name for a variety of chemical compounds used in cooling systems across the country. In refrigerators, freon operates within a closed system as a liquid to help the machine rapidly cool the inside. Chemical smells coming from these appliances may be telling signs of leaks in coolant tubing or circulation mechanisms.
Normal Appliance Operation
Freon remains sealed in your refrigerator's cooling system during normal operation. As long as the cooling system remains leak free, the chemical cannot escape and no odor should emanate from the appliance. According to The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, freon has an odor similar to freshly cut grass. If you detect this odor when opening your refrigerator or standing near the unit, the appliance probably has a freon leak somewhere in the cooling system. A licensed refrigeration repair technician needs to examine the fridge to find the source of the leak and fix the damage.
Freon Gas and Liquid
Freon only remains a liquid while under pressure inside your refrigerator's cooling system. The chemical changes to a gas as soon as it contacts the air. This means, when you smell freon in and around your refrigerator, you're also inhaling varying amounts of freon gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, freon gas is denser than air and travels very slowly to the upper atmosphere. The largest concentrations of leaking freon gas from your refrigerator are usually at the bottom portion of the appliance. This can change depending on the location of the leak and how low the freon gas can travel before encountering impenetrable ground.
Health Hazards of Freon
Short-term exposure to small amounts freon gas should not cause adverse health effects. Exposure to large quantities of the chemical over a short span of time can damage your central nervous system. Affects range widely depending on level of exposure from dizziness and loss of coordination to breathing difficulties and irregular heartbeat. Inhaling large quantities of freon could exacerbate a previously existing lung or heart condition. This could lead to potentially serious medical complications that can require immediate attention to ensure you incur no long-term damage.
Limiting Freon Exposure
If you detect the smell of leaking freon from your refrigerator, open all the windows and doors in the immediate area. This encourages airflow through the room and limits your exposure to high amounts of the gas. You aren't endangering plant life and animals by employing this strategy, though you should be careful to avoid allowing the gas to flow into areas of exposed soil. Freon -- due to its density -- can easily settle through the soil and leach into local groundwater.