Nitrogen, also known as N or N2 (chemical formula), is the most abundant element in Earth’s atmosphere, making up about 78% of the air. It is a colourless and odourless compressed gas that is non-combustible and non-toxic. Every year, about 45 million tonnes are extracted by distillation of liquid air in the environment.
Nitrogen is used across a wide range of applications including the production of ammonia, nitric acid, nitrates and cyanides to name a few.
Farmers add nitrogen to fertilizer to yield higher quality crops, but too much can have the opposite effect as well as pollute our waterways. When plants don’t receive enough nitrogen, they can’t produce amino acids which will in turn stop them from producing the proteins that plant cells require for growth.
The liquid form of nitrogen (liquid nitrogen), is often to preserve biological materials such as eggs, sperm, blood and other cells for medical research and reproductive activities. It is also used as a refrigerant and to freeze food rapidly.
The routes of exposure for nitrogen include; inhalation, skin and eye contact.
Inhalation of nitrogen vapours may cause drowsiness, dizziness, narcosis, reduced alertness, loss of reflexes, lack of coordination and vertigo. Other general symptoms of non-toxic gas inhalation can include; nausea, vomiting, headaches, confusion, coma, seizures, respiratory system complications and cardiovascular effects. Nitrogen is non-toxic, but it can still cause asphyxiation when it replaces the oxygen in the air and can ultimately lead to death.
Skin contact with nitrogen is not thought to cause irritation, however other harmful effects may result upon entry into the bloodstream through open cuts or wounds.
Eye contact with nitrogen can cause extreme low temperature burns if the gas is cold. Gas at normal temperatures is not likely to cause irritation because of its gas state.
If inhaled, remove the patient from the contaminated area to the nearest fresh air source and monitor their breathing. Lay the patient down and keep them warm and rested. If they are not breathing and you are qualified to do so, perform CPR (a self contained breathing apparatus may be required to ensure the safety of the person administering help). Monitor their breathing and pulse. Seek medical attention.
If skin exposure occurs, cleanse the affected area with running water and soap. Seek medical attention in the event of irritation.
If the chemical is exposed to the eyes, remove the patient from the contaminated area and flush the eyes out immediately with fresh running water, opening the eyelids wide to allow the chemical to evaporate. Gently rinse the eyes with cool water for at least 15 minutes. Seek medical attention.
Emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical and adequate ventilation is essential and must be installed if not readily available.
The PPE recommended when handling nitrogen includes; safety glasses with side shields, chemical goggles, gloves, respirators, protective overalls and lab coats.
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