Ammonia is a naturally occurring gas that has no color but a very pungent odor. The gas is a source of nitrogen, which, in the right environment, is an important nutrient for plant and animal life. Ammonia can be found in soil, air and water. Ammonia has a number of uses, including being a key component of many domestic cleaning products.
Ammonia in Nature
In the natural environment, ammonia is absorbed by plants and animals and does not spend too long in the food cycle. Bacteria in the guts of animals create ammonia, which is why areas with a concentration of animal waste, such as farms or homes with many cats, often have a strong smell of ammonia in the air. Ammonia does not harm the environment, as it is a natural part of the planetary ecosystem. It can be harmful to human beings in high concentrations, however.
Health Effects of Ammonia
Because ammonia occurs naturally, almost everyone is regularly exposed to small amounts of it. A potentially harmful concentration of ammonia is always indicated by the powerful smell that accompanies the gas. Ammonia can cause watery and itchy eyes, irritate the throat and make breathing painful. Those with allergies and asthma are more sensitive to the effects of ammonia than others. If concentrated ammonia touches bare skin, it can cause burns; if it gets into the eyes, it can cause permanent damage. For those overexposed to high concentrations of ammonia, serious lung injury, or even death can occur.
Typical Uses for Ammonia
Ammonia is turned into a liquid and used to fertilize crops and soil. Because of its pungent odor, ammonia is a core ingredient of smelling salts, which are used to rouse people from fainting smells and to improve mental alertness. The most common form of ammonia that humans encounter is liquid ammonia in industrial and domestic cleaning products. Ammonia is often found in cleaning products in the form of ammonium hydroxide.
Home Products Containing Ammonia
Window cleaners, floor polishing waxes, drain cleaners, toilet cleaners, bathroom cleaners, multisurface cleaners, glass cleaners, oven cleaners and stainless-steel cleaners all contain ammonia. Ammonia is a core component in numerous products, usually in a distilled form. You can purchase full-strength ammonia at drugstores and home improvement stores, although dilution is recommended.
Though large concentrations of ammonia may irritate the lungs, nose, mouth and eyes, it is an inexpensive and effective way to clean a home. It cleans glass and mirrors to a sparkling, streak-free shine; removes soap scum and mildew in bathrooms; disinfects countertops, refrigerators and other household appliances; and removes nearly every kind of stain, grime and dirt buildup in the home. Diluted with water and used in moderation in well-ventilated areas, ammonia is a relatively safe cleaning product.