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ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS AND TOXIC CHEMICALS WHERE YOU LIVE, WORK, AND PLAY

Nitrogen Oxides

What are they?

Nitrogen oxides are a group of seven gases and compounds composed of nitrogen and oxygen. The two most common and hazardous nitrogen oxides are nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Nitrous oxide, commonly called laughing gas, is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Nitrogen oxides are emitted from vehicle exhaust, and the burning of coal, oil, diesel fuel, and natural gas, especially from electric power plants. They are also emitted by cigarettes, gas stoves, kerosene heaters, wood burning, and silos that contain silage.

Nitrogen oxides react with sunlight and other chemicals to form smog. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide react with substances in the atmosphere to form acid rain.

Nitrogen dioxide is used to produce rocket fuels and explosives.

Nitrous oxide is emitted during agricultural and industrial activities, and during combustion of fossil fuels and solid waste. It is used as an anesthetic.
 

See also: Agriculture Air Pollution Power Plants Vehicles and Engines Factories Fuel Industry Homes

Where are Nitrogen Oxides found?

  • Air – vehicle exhaust, emissions from coal-fired power plants and appliances that burn fossil fuels, cigarette smoke, and secondhand smoke
  • Consumer products – cigarettes, vehicles, and home heating appliances

How can I be exposed to Nitrogen Oxides?

Nitrogen Oxides commonly enter(s) the body through:

Inhalation
Inhalation (breathing)
  • Breathing emissions from coal-fired power plants, vehicles, and appliances that burn fossil fuels; smoking cigarettes; and breathing secondhand smoke or smog
Touching
Skin contact
  • Touching high concentrations of nitrogen oxide gases or liquid nitrogen dioxide

What happens when I am exposed to Nitrogen Oxides?

Short-term:
Breathing nitrogen oxides can cause:

  • Irritation of the respiratory system, eyes, and skin
  • Aggravation of respiratory diseases, particularly asthma
  • Coughing and choking
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing

Skin and eye contact with nitrogen oxide gases or liquid nitrogen dioxide can cause irritation and burns.

Long-term:
Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide can cause:

  • Asthma
  • Respiratory infections

Exposure to very high levels of nitrogen oxides may cause:

  • Death
  • Genetic mutations
  • Harm to a developing fetus
  • Decreased female fertility
  • Spasms
  • Swelling of the throat
  • Rapid pulse 
  • Dilated heart

Who is at risk for exposure to Nitrogen Oxides?

  • Consumers
    • Everyone is exposed to small amounts of nitrogen oxides in the air. Some heating and cooking appliances use fossil fuels; some people live near coal-fired power plants.
  • Cigarette smokers
    • Cigarette smoke and secondhand smoke contain nitrogen oxides.

Reduce your risk

If you think your health has been affected by exposure to nitrogen oxides, contact your health care professional. 

Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling chemicals. For poisoning emergencies or questions about possible poisons, please contact your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.


 

  • Do you live near a coal-burning electric power plant or areas with heavy motor vehicle traffic?
  • Do you live in an area with high levels of air pollution and smog?
  • Do you, or does anyone in your household, smoke tobacco products?
  • How frequently are you exposed to vehicle exhaust or gas stations?
  • Use proper ventilation, especially if you have an indoor gas stove or space heaters.
  • Make sure gas stoves, furnaces, and space heaters are properly vented.
  • Keep appliances properly adjusted.
  • Have gas appliances routinely inspected by a trained professional. Repair any leaks promptly.
  • Install and use an exhaust fan vented over gas stoves.
  • Use proper fuel in kerosene space heaters.
  • Open flues when using fireplaces.
  • If you smoke, quit. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Limit your time near idling cars, trucks, or buses.
  • Do not idle the car inside a garage.
  • Farm families should not allow children to play near silos that contain silage.
  • Don’t let children play near gas stations, idling cars, or busy highways.
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