Although nitrogen is non-toxic, when released into an enclosed space it can displace oxygen, and therefore presents an asphyxiation hazard. This may happen with few warning symptoms, since the human carotid body is a relatively poor and slow low-oxygen (hypoxia) sensing system.[87] An example occurred shortly before the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission in 1981, when two technicians died from asphyxiation after they walked into a space located in the Shuttle's Mobile Launcher Platform that was pressurised with pure nitrogen as a precaution against fire.[88]

When inhaled at high partial pressures (more than about 4 bar, encountered at depths below about 30 m in scuba diving), nitrogen is an anesthetic agent, causing nitrogen narcosis, a temporary state of mental impairment similar to nitrous oxide intoxication.[89][90]

Nitrogen dissolves in the blood and body fats. Rapid decompression (as when divers ascend too quickly or astronauts decompress too quickly from cabin pressure to spacesuit pressure) can lead to a potentially fatal condition called decompression sickness (formerly known as caisson sickness or the bends), when nitrogen bubbles form in the bloodstream, nerves, joints, and other sensitive or vital areas.[91][92] Bubbles from other "inert" gases (gases other than carbon dioxide and oxygen) cause the same effects, so replacement of nitrogen in breathing gases may prevent nitrogen narcosis, but does not prevent decompression sickness.[93]


As a cryogenic liquid, liquid nitrogen can be dangerous by causing cold burns on contact, although the Leidenfrost effect provides protection for very short exposure (about one second).[94] Ingestion of liquid nitrogen can cause severe internal damage. For example, in 2012, a young woman in England had to have her stomach removed after ingesting a cocktail made with liquid nitrogen.[95]

Because the liquid-to-gas expansion ratio of nitrogen is 1:694 at 20 °C, a tremendous amount of force can be generated if liquid nitrogen is rapidly vaporised in an enclosed space. In an incident on January 12, 2006 at Texas A&M University, the pressure-relief devices of a tank of liquid nitrogen were malfunctioning and later sealed. As a result of the subsequent pressure buildup, the tank failed catastrophically. The force of the explosion was sufficient to propel the tank through the ceiling immediately above it, shatter a reinforced concrete beam immediately below it, and blow the walls of the laboratory 0.1–0.2 m off their foundations.[96]

Liquid nitrogen readily evaporates to form gaseous nitrogen, and hence the precautions associated with gaseous nitrogen also apply to liquid nitrogen.[97][98][99] For example, oxygen sensors are sometimes used as a safety precaution when working with liquid nitrogen to alert workers of gas spills into a confined space.[100]

Vessels containing liquid nitrogen can condense oxygen from air. The liquid in such a vessel becomes increasingly enriched in oxygen (boiling point −183 °C, higher than that of nitrogen) as the nitrogen evaporates, and can cause violent oxidation of organic material.[101]