Ammonia is a chemical compound that consists of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms tightly bonded, which gives it the chemical symbol NH3. It can take the form of a strong-smelling liquid or gas. Many consumer and commercial products contain this alkaline substance, including many products that are used to clean grime or fertilize crops. This chemical is hazardous, and even in low concentrations, inhaling it or getting the solution on the skin can cause burning, fainting or possible death. Caution should always be used when one is handling this chemical.
A tiny amount of ammonia forms when organic matter decomposes, so the gas can be found naturally in the Earth's atmosphere. Most of the ammonia that is used is produced through artificial means, however, by bonding the nitrogen and hydrogen atoms together by force. Then the gas can be pressurized to form a liquid for easy distribution to manufacturing plants.
As a gas, this substance is lighter than air, so it won't pool indoors like other dangerous gases, such as propane. Although ammonia has a pungent, distinctive odor, it is clear and difficult to ignite unless it is highly concentrated. This makes it safer than other chemicals for household use, because most people will recognize the smell and avoid touching the chemical or inhaling its fumes.
Ammonia is easily incorporated into water as a solution, so it is used in many cleaners. Window sprays, oven cleaning foams, toilet bowl cleansers, wax removers and other household cleansers often contain 5 percent to 10 percent ammonia. Some types of cleaners should never be mixed. For example, ammonia and bleach form a very dangerous gas, called chloramine, that shouldn't be inhaled.
Commercial cleansers, which often contain 25 percent to 30 percent ammonia, are extremely dangerous because they are highly corrosive. Under careful oversight, liquid ammonia also is used to etch metals such as aluminum and copper, to refrigerate rooms or trucks and to dissolve other elements in chemistry labs. Most of the ammonia that is produced goes to fertilizing crops by providing absorbable nitrogen to plants. Manufacturers of plastics, pesticides and dyes also use the liquid at some point in their synthesizing processes.
At one time, cotton balls were often soaked in ammonia and sealed inside bottles. People who fainted were revived with a whiff of the strong smell. This was generally safe, as long as it wasn't done frequently.