09. August 2023

Is refrigerant environmentally harmful or toxic?

DIN EN 378, F-Gas Regulation, PFAS - The awareness of the environment and its damage by chemicals ensures permanent adjustments in the handling of refrigerants in refrigeration and air conditioning systems.


Refrigerant is essential as an operating fluid for heat transport in refrigeration systems, air conditioning systems and heat pumps. There are different types of refrigerants with different environmental impacts should they be released into the atmosphere.

We explain which refrigerants you are allowed to use and which refrigerants are no longer allowed according to regulations.


Refrigerant types

There are different types of refrigerants that have been used over time. In the past, greenhouse gases (HCFCs) containing chlorine, such as R-12 or R-22 (chlorodifluoromethane), were often used as refrigerants. These have been replaced by chlorine-free refrigerants, such as R404A, R-134a or R-32, due to their harmful effects on the ozone layer.

Natural refrigerants such as propane, butane, isobutane, CO2 or ammonia have a better environmental balance compared to synthetically produced ones. Even water can be used as a refrigerant and is the most environmentally friendly of all.


Damage to the ozone layer

Older chlorinated refrigerants (HCFCs) contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer, leading to an increase in UV radiation on the Earth's surface. The Montreal Protocol provides for the gradual phase-out of these ozone-depleting refrigerants. What is unique about this protocol is that it was ratified by all 187 UN member states in 1988.

Currently, 193 member states are counted.

Several amendments to the protocol have tightened the regulations, most recently the decision in Kigali in 2016. Partially fluorinated substances (HFCs) are included in the Montreal Protocol and regulate the gradual restriction of the consumption of such refrigerants.


The global warming effect

Besides the depletion of the ozone layer, there is another known problem with refrigerants.

These can make a significant contribution to increasing the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. When refrigerants enter the atmosphere, heat radiation from the sun is absorbed. This contributes to global warming.

Therefore, the Global Warming Potential (GWP) is an important factor in assessing the environmental impact of a refrigerant.

The F-Gases Regulation and the Montreal Protocol regulate the phasing out of refrigerants with a high GWP value.

Manufacturers are working hard to develop alternative refrigerants with a low GWP value.

The difficult thing is that the "old" refrigerants have a high safety class, which is more difficult to comply with if the GWP value is minimised.

Roughly speaking, the lower the GWP value, the greater the flammability.

The more flammable a refrigerant is, the lower its safety class.

The lower the safety class, the higher the technical requirements for operating systems with such refrigerants.


Environmentally friendly alternatives are sought

Modern refrigeration and air conditioning systems are increasingly using more environmentally friendly refrigerants with lower GWP.

For example, R-410A, a commonly used refrigerant in air conditioning systems, has no ozone depleting potential (ODP value), but it has a high GWP value of 2088. Other refrigerants such as: R-32 have a lower GWP value of 675 and are currently considered a more environmentally friendly alternative.

In the F-Gas Regulation, the phase-down process for all member states regulates the phasing out of refrigerants by 2030, which refrigerants are no longer allowed at which point in time and how long existing systems may be operated. Additional findings from current research can accelerate the phase-down process.

For example, it should be clarified by October 2023 how fluorinated carbon chains, in which the hydrogen atoms are completely or partially replaced by fluorine atoms, are to be handled. This will primarily affect the refrigerants of the R-400 and R-100 series.

According to current knowledge, the so-called PFAS are carcinogenic and difficult to break down in the human body.

PFASs are widespread in various industries and applications.

This does not only apply to refrigerants in refrigeration and air conditioning systems, but also to the air conditioning industry:

  • Coatings for textiles 
  • Outdoor clothing
  • Impregnations
  • Baking paper
  • Fire extinguishers 
  • Cosmetics 
  • etc.


Leaks and maintenance

Refrigerant can be released into the atmosphere due to leaks in the system or improper maintenance. Proper handling of the refrigeration and air-conditioning systems, as well as regular leakage tests, are important in order to eliminate or minimise environmental pollution.

The use of detachable screw connections in refrigerant pipelines should be avoided. Where technically possible, fixed connections should be made by welding or soldering in the pipe network.

Depending on the filling quantity of the system or the CO2 equivalent of the refrigerant, system documentation is mandatory.



When replacing or disposing of refrigeration and air conditioning equipment, local environmental regulations and disposal guidelines for the refrigerant contained therein must be followed. Refrigerant must be recovered from the refrigerant circuit and properly disposed of or recycled.



It is important to use environmentally friendly refrigerants in refrigeration and air conditioning systems to reduce environmental impact.

If it is technically possible, if the application allows it, natural refrigerants are the most likely to be used.

Care and maintenance of refrigeration and air conditioning systems is essential. It should be carried out by specialists or by persons who have the necessary know-how, tools and are informed about and certified in the latest environmentally friendly technologies.

If you notice any defects, report them to your service partner as soon as possible.

Regular maintenance of the equipment is the be-all and end-all. Not only for the environment, but it also saves you money.