Ammonia is a naturally occurring, colorless gas with a very pungent odor. It is an excellent cleanser in liquid form and is found in many household cleaning products. Window cleaners, floor polishing waxes, furniture polish, drain cleaners, toilet cleansers, bathroom cleaners, multi-surface cleaners, glass cleaners, oven cleansers and stainless-steel cleaners all contain ammonia. You can also purchase full-strength ammonia at drugstores and hardware stores, although dilution is recommended. Although it cleans well, ammonia can cause health problems when mishandled, making it important to know if you're cleaning or working with it.
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Typical Uses for Ammonia
Because it contains high levels of nitrogen, which encourages leafy plant growth, ammonia is often liquefied and used to fertilize crops. Its pungent aroma is also added to the smelling salts used to revive unconscious people and improve alertness. Because it is both effective and inexpensive, people often clean with ammonia. Ammonia is added to household cleansers because it cleans glass and mirrors without streaking, cuts soap scum, kills mildew and disinfects surfaces. It's also prized for its abilities to cut through tough grease and stains, often cleaning surfaces that ammonia-free cleansers cannot.
The Dangers of Ammonia
Though an effective cleanser, ammonia is potentially harmful in high concentrations. In high concentrations, ammonia may cause irritation to the nose and throat, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure can cause the lungs to fill with fluid, leading to death. Ammonia can also cause eye irritation. Those with allergies and asthma are more sensitive to these effects. If concentrated ammonia touches bare skin, it can cause burns, and if it gets into the eyes, it can cause permanent damage. Fortunately, ammonia's potent odor makes it easy to identify. If you experience any of these health problems and smell ammonia, move outside or to a well-ventilated area and seek medical treatment immediately if necessary.
When cleaning, never mix ammonia and bleach. Doing so creates a dangerous, sometimes fatal gas.
Because ammonia is potentially dangerous, it is important to keep it where pets and children can't reach it. To know if you're using a cleaning product that contains ammonia, read the label carefully. Ammonia is commonly identified as ammonium hydroxide on product labels. You can also check your products against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's household products database.