This past March, Kristal Salcido, a 12-year-old seventh grader in Victorville, Calif., inhaled HCFC-22 from an air conditioning unit in the backyard of her grandmother’s home. She was later found passed out on the bathroom floor. Rushed to the emergency room, Salcido was pronounced brain dead. Four days later, her family decided to take her off life support.

She had used the R-22 in a ritual called huffing — the intentional inhalation of chemical vapors to attain a mental high or euphoric effect.

Refrigerants such as CFCs, HCFCs, HFCs, and propane are just part of that chemical basket of inhalants. Others are gasoline, paint thinners, nail polish, and nitrous oxide. According to the website, one in five students has inhaled a chemical to get high by the eighth grade.

The Hazards of Huffing

In the case of the R-22, “When you inhale it, it kills your brain cells — that’s all,” said Ron Postoian, president of AC Plus Heating & Air of Hesperia, Calif., who was interviewed by television station KTLA for its story on a recent huffing fatality in his home state.

“People really don’t realize how dangerous this is,” said Dr. Craig Sanford, Tulsa, Okla., in a news report broadcast by NewsOn6. “Inhaling this substance prevents the body from getting oxygen and you can get frostbite from it, inside the tissues of your nose, mouth, and face.”

Postoian said that he’s serviced a number of condensing units where the refrigerant had suspiciously been used up.

That “missing refrigerant” aspect was echoed by Ryan Rentmeister, who owns Rentmeister Total Home Service of Salt Lake City. A few years ago in his hometown, people were turning on their air conditioners, but the machines were failing to provide cool air, due to absent refrigerant. “We’ve had four cases in the last week,” he said, suspecting huffing as the cause.

Ronda Szymanski of Advanced Air and Refrigeration Inc., Fort Myers, Fla., said a telltale sign is when service techs find a butter knife laying next to a central air conditioning condenser that has been depleted of refrigerant, with its service port visibly damaged.

Curbing the Problem

Regulators and many within the HVACR industry have been working hard to get a handle on this deadly situation. Both the International Mechanical Code 1101.10 and the International Residential Code M1411.6 have mandated that “refrigerant-circuit access ports located outdoors shall be fitted with locking-type tamper-resistant caps.”

Code requirements have been in place since 2009, but these requirements need to be codified by each state, said Gerry Spanger, director of HVACR engineered products for Rectorseal Corp.

So far, at least five states have adopted the codes, said Spanger. However, limiting more widespread acceptance, the codes are only related to new construction. He said eventually the codes will extend into retrofits and existing buildings. “It is not a question of ‘no, this won’t happen.’ It is just a question of how long it takes,” said Spanger.

Once state codes are in place, inspectors cannot sign off on a job until the locking caps are in place.

“The products are a must for companies and technicians to comply with local codes as well as liability concerns connected with refrigerants,” said Oscar Lopez, vice president of sales for JB Industries Inc., Aurora, Ill.

Spanger said that even as all the regulatory aspects eventually fall into place, there is still the possibility of abuse within the HVACR sector. He said he’d even heard of contractors buying the caps, locking them in place when required, and then removing them after an inspection for use in the next project.

“They don’t understand they are laying themselves open to liabilities,” he said.

He also said that even though the caps can only be sold to contractors who are U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified to handle refrigerants, he had heard of instances of some wholesalers and contractors who sell the caps on websites, even though they may not be able to verify the certification status of the purchaser.

According to Jon Melchi, director of government affairs for Heating, Air-conditioning & Refrigeration Distributors International (HARDI), “Wholesalers and suppliers strongly believe that these products should not be available online. They should only be sold to licensed contractors. As an industry we must be diligent in making sure that the entire channel is aware of best practices regarding these products.”

Locked and Loaded

While controlling huffing remains a key aspect of locking caps, the devices have long been offered in the HVACR distribution channel for a number of applications. Even as regulations move toward the requirement of locking caps, the devices themselves are being fine tuned.

For example, this past February, Rectorseal Corp. introduced its GasGuard™, a tamper-resistant locking valve cap designed to help prevent refrigerant theft, leaks, and huffing. It screws and locks onto threaded refrigerant Schraeder valves.

“GasGuard restricts unauthorized access because it can only be installed or removed with a unique matching proprietary socket tool,” said Jerry Tomasello, director of marketing for RectorSeal. “It cannot be removed with a core remover or Allen wrench.”

JB’s Lopez also noted that his company is launching a new American-made refrigerant safety cap with greater security under the brand name The Shield.

Contractor Support

Numerous contractors, including Chase Tunnell, president, Dominion Service, Richmond, Va., are strong advocates of locking caps. For a number of years, Tunnell has been involved with the Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE) program, which encourages the use of locking caps.

“SAFE is still actively pushing it and Dominion Service is currently doing a public service campaign in the Hampton Roads, Va., area,” he said. “Our Richmond division has had huge success with the program but Hampton Roads has been a little slower to catch on. We are working on fixing that.

“We are currently installing 10-15 caps each week. We’re confident that number will increase significantly as the summer season hits.”

Publication date: 5/20/2013 

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