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Ammonia Risk Assessment

Laura Boles

ENV385: Chemistry And Toxicology

Instructor Muthu Kuchanur

02/04/2019
Ammonia Risk Assessment

Abstract

Ammonia is a toxicant which is both produced by humans and found naturally across the

earth. This research paper analyzes the effects of ammonia in the environment and on human

health. Then, after thorough analysis, risk estimation is presented. It was found that the main

people who suffer from deleterious health effects due to ammonia exposure are those who work

directly with ammonia. However, the severe effect on the environment, coupled with ammonia’s

readiness to travel through various mediums, shows a need to suppress use and manufacture of

ammonia.

Introduction

Ammonia is a toxicant that, in large quantities, degrades the environment, rather than

assists it. Ammonia is the most released chemical in the state of Oklahoma (U.S. Environmental

Protection Agency, 2018, Toxic Release Inventory). First, discussed here are the health effects of

ammonia on humans and other wildlife along with where it can be commonly found in the

environment. Then, a risk characterization is conducted, and a risk assessment is presented.

Finally, potential solutions for the mitigation of ammonia mitigations are proposed.

Hazard Identification

Ammonia is found as a gas or liquid without color, but with a very strong odor (U.S.

National Library of Medicine, 2018). Ammonia is corrosive and lighter than air but will become

a liquid under pressure (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018). Ammonia can be found
unionized as NH3, ionized as NH4+, or can oxidize to become nitrite (NO2-) or nitrate (NO3-)

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2018, Ammonia). Ammonia is soluble in water,

alcohol, methanol, chloroform, and ether (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018). This

indicates that there are many forms that ammonia can take and pathways in which it can travel,

since there are so many common compounds to which it will readily attach. Ammonia is also

known to be corrosive to galvanized surfaces and copper (U.S. National Library of Medicine,

2018).

Figure 1. Chemical structure for ammonia. (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018).

Ammonia is more toxic to people with respiratory and cardiovascular problems, children,

seniors, and fetuses (Peel, et al., 2013, Pg. 124). Since ammonias generally found as a gas, it is

usually known to have a severe effect on the respiratory systems of those affected. This clearly

indicates that inhalation is the most common route of exposure. Although children and those

with respiratory illnesses are the most likely to be harmed by ammonia exposure, people who

work with ammonia directly tend to be most frequently exposed to toxic levels (United States

Department of Labor, 2002).

Ammonia is known to be highly soluble in water accompanied by high levels of polarity,

making it difficult to measure concentrations (Chowdhury, et al., 2018, Pg. 2). When ammonia is
exposed to the air it reacts with other molecules in the atmosphere to create volatile nitrogen

compounds and particulate matter as it persistently travels through the nitrogen cycle (Hickman,

et at., 2018, Pg. 16714). When these nitrogen compounds fall to the earth in the form of

precipitation, acidification and eutrophication will often occur as a result (Schiferl, et al., Pg.

12306). Eutrophication caused by ammonia levels can cause fish kills due to the fact that

nitrogen fertilizes the algae and fungi in the water, creating large blooms which deplete the

ecosystem of oxygen (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2018). Higher pH

levels increase the toxicity of ammonia for fish decreasing their buffering ability for ammonia

(Yuen & Shit, 2010, Pg. 8). Ammonia has been found to easily permeate mitochondrial

membranes and make it past the blood brain barrier, and high levels of pH can cause fish death

(Yuen & Shit, 2010, Pg. 1).


Dose Response Assessment

Ammonia accumulates in the tissues of fish and for the most part fish excrete that

ammonia into their environment, however when too much ammonia accumulates in the fish is

body it can disrupt their nervous system (Yuen & Shit, 2010, Pgs. 8-9). Ammonia also has a

tendency to accumulate in sediment as organic matter decomposes (U.S. Environmental


Protection Agency, 2018, Ammonia). Metazooplankton were found to excrete higher amounts of

ammonia as their body mass and habitat temperature increased (Ikeda, 2014, Pg. 2756). This

indicates the potential for ammonia to have an effect on metabolic rates in zooplankton or

metazooplankton as well as in larger fish species. Ammonia is known to be toxic to aquatic biota

(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2018, Ammonia). Even though it can be toxic to aquatic

biota, ammonia usually causes fish kills through eutrophication and hypoxia from over fertilizing

algae.

Exposure Assessment

Well over half of ammonia emissions in the United States come from the animal industry

(Lin, et al., 2014, Pg. 439). One study found that homes near higher levels of ammonia tend to

have a poorer quality of life, even when ammonia concentrations are not high enough to be

considered a health risk (Williams, et al., 2011, Pg. 7). Although this was not the goal of this

particular study, these findings are not insignificant. This indicates that there is no escape from

the noxious gases. OSHA has set the maximum permissible exposure limits at 35 ppm for short

term amount of human exposure (United States Department of Labor, 2002). Ammonia has been

found to be very toxic to the skin and respiratory system and workers exposed to high levels of

ammonia have shown hemorrhaging, severe internal and external irritation and even blindness or

death, however, people who work with ammonia or ammonia-based products are the primary

humans effected (United States Department of Labor, 2002). It only takes a 2% ammonia

solution 15 minutes of exposure to severely burn the skin, while it only takes 70 ppm to

potentially cause blindness (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018).


Risk Characterization

The estimation of risk for ammonia is medium. Since ammonia travels easily through air,

water, and soil, the secondary effects of this chemical are likely to be felt by everyone. The

effects in this category are water contamination and fish kills. Direct exposure to harmful levels

of ammonia seem to be restricted to those who work with the chemical, so the general population

will not be likely to suffer from health effects from this toxicant. Ammonia is also not deemed to

be carcinogenic, lowering the risk of health effects (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease

Registry, 2018).

Solutions and Conclusions

One method used to lower ammonia concentrations inside buildings is to use a wet

scrubber treatment, which has been found to significantly decrease ammonia levels (Lin, et al.,

2014, Pg. 446). Another method of reducing ammonia levels expelled into the atmosphere is by

grazing. It is been found that grazing can reduce emissions of ammonia but up to 8 times as

compared to housing livestock inside (Voglmeier, et al., 2018, Pg. 4593). This promotes not only

mitigation of emissions but also promotes the health and wellbeing of livestock and, by

extension, the humans who rely on them for survival.

Elimination of keeping livestock sequestered indoors could be a great step towards

lowering ammonia emissions. The EPA should propose this idea and make note of the fact that it

will increase human health as well as improve the quality of the food available in the country.

This will help get this idea backed by voters and citizens, since personal health risk is important

to most people. Realistically all livestock will not be able to be free range. To address this
problem, installations of wet scrubber treatment systems would be the best second option.

Livestock requires fresh clean water to survive just as any other mammal. At the same time

livestock remains the number one contributor of ammonia emissions, from the ammonia excreted

directly out of their bodies, to the fertilizer applied to the earth to ensure their food supply.

Farmers may have the most difficulty adapting to these new rules. Many may not feel like they

need to change the way they do things because they have been doing it that way for many years

without problems. Education would be the first necessary step towards getting the public to

change their ways. Next regulation will help to align people with exactly what needs to be done.

Finally grants and loans could be issued for the equipment necessary to clean ammonia from

livestock buildings.

The potential for exposure, health risks, and environmental fate of ammonia have been

discussed. Although ammonia is not directly harmful to humans unless they are working with the

chemical directly, the secondary effects are far-reaching. Multiple solutions to lower ammonia in

the environment have been presented in the hopes that this problem can be addressed before it

becomes too late to fix.


Running head: Ammonia Risk Assessment 9

References

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). (2018). Ammonia. Retrieved from

https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=2.

Bicer, Y., Dincer, I., Vezina, G., & Raso, F. (2017). Impact Assessment and Environmental

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