Dangers of Ammonia Explained as Russian Shelling Causes Leak in Ukraine

Ukrainian citizens in the town of Novoselytsia were warned they could be exposed to ammonia after Russian shelling reportedly hit a nearby chemical plant.

In a series of Facebook posts on Monday morning, Ukrainian official Dmytro Zhyvytskyy said there was an ammonia leak affecting a zone 2.5 kilometers (1.6 miles) around the Sumykhimprom plant, which is located in the Sumy region.

The city of Sumy is not thought to be under threat, Zhyvytskyy said, adding that the leak had since been eliminated. However, in an earlier post seen here the official said that Novoselytsia, downwind of the leak, may be at risk and shared advice on what to do if the town's population was unable to evacuate.

What is ammonia?

Ammonia is a chemical often used in industrial plants for many biological processes, including as a fertilizer. It's also used as a refrigerant gas and in the manufacture of plastics, pesticides and other chemicals.

At room temperature, ammonia is a colorless gas that is corrosive and highly irritating and can be fatal for humans. It carries a suffocating odor that can act as a warning of its presence.

When it comes into contact with the human body, ammonia causes tissue to die. If inhaled, it causes immediate burning of the nose and throat and can destroy the airways. If it affects the skin or eyes, ammonia can cause severe injury or burns in high concentrations.

Once people are exposed to ammonia there are treatments that can help. According to the New York Department of Health, "immediate decontamination of skin and eyes with copious amounts of water is very important."

Other treatment options can include giving people humidified oxygen and bronchodilators—a type of medicine that makes breathing easier.

The pure form of ammonia gas, called anhydrous ammonia, is lighter than air and tends to rise. In the presence of moisture, it can form heavier vapors that may spread along the ground or into low-lying areas.

Ammonia exists naturally and also in cleaning products, which can act as sources of exposure. It can also be released accidentally from industrial plants, farms, or via deliberate attacks.

In the most recent update by Zhyvytskyy, the official said there was "no threat to the population" and that the leak had been eliminated and regulatory work was underway. One person, an employee of the plant, was injured.

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Ammonia container
A file photo shows an industrial container of ammonia. Ammonia can cause injury and death to humans who are exposed to it in high enough concentrations. DarcyMaulsby/Getty