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AC: What is “Freon?”

Freon is the chemical that cools the air in your car’s air conditioning system.

“Freon” is a blanket term for a group of chemicals that are often used as refrigerants. These are the chemicals in the air conditioning refill cans you see in auto parts stores. Freon refrigerants are used in the air conditioning (AC) systems of cars and trucks. It cools the air in your vehicle by circulating through the AC system and cooling air that is then blown into your cabin by a fan. Without freon running through the system, there is nothing to cool the air, so the fan just keeps blowing warm air through your vents.

Does freon harm the environment?

No. At least not the freon in your car’s AC system. In the past, the AC systems of cars and trucks were filled with freon-12 (also called R-12), which was later shown to harm the ozone layer. In 1995, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned R-12 from being manufactured. Since then, auto AC systems have used R-134a, a freon that doesn’t harm the ozone layer.

However, just like oil, gasoline, and antifreeze, R-134a can harm the environment if it is not properly disposed of. Letting freon drain onto the ground or onto the floor of your garage is not only unsafe for you, but it can contaminate groundwater, streams, rivers, and soil.

Are there any health risks to working with freon?

Avoid skin contact with freon, as it is not only highly toxic, but it is cold enough to instantly freeze any body part that it comes into contact with. Always wear gloves and goggles while working with freon, and make sure your work space is properly ventilated. The fumes from R-134a can cause dizziness and asphyxiation in small areas. If you spill some refrigerant, be sure to evacuate the area and avoid breathing the fumes. Ventilate the area if it is safe to do so, and turn off the engine of your vehicle if it is running. Clean the area with water. You must report spills of R-134a to the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802.


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