Media Release - Industrial fridge chemical poses new health risks


06 Jul 1999

The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) released for public comment today a revised report on an industrial refrigerant which warns that repeated exposure could cause liver disease and possible harm to breast-fed babies.

The chemical, HCFC-123, is a highly volatile liquid used as a refrigerant in industrial air-conditioning chillers. It is also an ingredient in fire-fighting agents for portable and fixed fire extinguisher systems. As one of a number of hydrocarbons containing fluorine and chlorine which contribute to ozone depletion and global warming, HCFC-123 is due to be phased out by 2020.

In line with National Occupational Health and Safety Commission criteria, NICNAS recommends that HCFC-123 be classified as 'harmful following repeated exposure' and 'may cause harm to breastfed babies'.

The public is unlikely to be exposed to HCFC-123, but chiller maintenance workers may inhale small amounts on a regular basis.

Contact at NICNAS for public submissions is Mr. Steen Kristensen on phone (02) 9577 9464, email kristens@ASCC.gov.au  Submissions must be received within the next 28 days. Executive Summary plus links to the document in RTF and PDF.


HCFC-123 was declared a Priority Existing Chemical by NICNAS in 1993. In 1996, NICNAS published its first assessment report on the chemical, expressing concern about the occurrence of tumours in the liver, pancreas and testes in a two-year toxicity study in rats. NICNAS also urged industry to conduct further studies to investigate the possibility that the chemical is excreted in milk and could have adverse effects on breast-fed infants.

New scientific studies available since the first assessment caused NICNAS to issue a secondary notification. This is a provision in the National Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act which enables NICNAS to have a fresh look at previously assessed chemicals if they have new uses, are introduced in greater quantities, or if new knowledge is gained about their health or environmental effects

The second assessment of HCFC-123 considered new investigations into the mechanisms of tumour induction in rats as well as specially designed lactation studies conducted in rats and monkeys. It also identified 26 cases of liver disease in workers in Belgium, USA and Japan who were exposed to repeated inhalation of low levels of the chemical from its use in crane cabin air-conditioning, electronics cleaning, and cooling of optic fibres.

Although the new investigations have shown that some tumour mechanisms are not relevant to humans, there are others for which human relevance cannot be excluded. NICNAS therefore continues to recommend that HCFC-123 be considered a carcinogen in Category 3(b). Chemicals in this category must be studied further to determine if they are likely to cause tumours in humans.

The report also recommends that HCFC-123 should not be used in vehicle air-conditioning or as an industrial degreaser in Australia.


The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) operates under the Commonwealth Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989.

NICNAS is a statutory scheme within the portfolio of the Minister for Health and Ageing. Its approach to the scientific assessment of chemicals covers toxicity, exposure and use to assess the environmental, public health and occupational health and safety risk. For more information see the web site www.nicnas.gov.au

Further information

Nick Miller, NICNAS, (02) 8577 8810 or 0407 228 285