Facts about Cyanide

Facts about Cyanide

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What cyanide is

  • Cyanide is a rapidly
    acting, potentially deadly chemical that can exist in various forms.
  • Cyanide can be a colorless
    gas, such as hydrogen cyanide (HCN) or cyanogen chloride (CNCl), or a crystal
    form such as sodium cyanide (NaCN) or potassium cyanide (KCN).
  • Cyanide gas sometimes
    is described as having a “bitter almond” smell, but it does not always give
    off an odor, and not everyone can detect this odor.
  • Cyanide is also known
    by the military designations AN (for hydrogen cyanide) and CK (for cyanogen

Where cyanide is found and how it is used

  • Cyanide is naturally
    present in some foods and in certain plants such as cassava. Cyanide is contained
    in cigarette smoke and the combustion products of synthetic materials such
    as plastics. Combustion products are substances given off when things burn.
  • In manufacturing, cyanide
    is used to make paper, textiles, and plastics. It is present in the chemicals
    used to develop photographs. Cyanide salts are used in metallurgy for electroplating,
    metal cleaning, and removing gold from its ore. Cyanide gas is used to exterminate
    pests and vermin in ships and buildings.
  • If accidentally ingested
    (swallowed), chemicals found in acetonitrile-based products that are used
    to remove artificial nails can produce cyanide.
  • Hydrogen cyanide, under
    the name Zyklon B, was used as a genocidal agent by the Germans in World War
  • Reports have indicated
    that during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, hydrogen cyanide gas may have
    been used along with other chemical agents against the inhabitants of the
    Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iraq.

How people can be
exposed to cyanide

  • Cyanide enters water,
    soil, or air as a result of both natural processes and industrial activities.
    In air, cyanide is present mainly as gaseous hydrogen cyanide.
  • People may be exposed
    to cyanide by breathing air, drinking water, eating food, or touching soil
    that contains cyanide.
  • Smoking cigarettes is
    probably one of the major sources of cyanide exposure for people who do not
    work in cyanide-related industries.

How cyanide works

  • Poisoning caused by cyanide
    depends on the amount of cyanide a person is exposed to, the route of exposure,
    and the length of time that a person is exposed.
  • Breathing cyanide gas
    causes the most harm, but ingesting cyanide can be toxic as well.
  • Cyanide gas is most dangerous
    in enclosed places where the gas will be trapped.
  • Cyanide gas evaporates
    and disperses quickly in open spaces, making it less harmful outdoors.
  • Cyanide gas is less dense
    than air, so it will rise.
  • Cyanide prevents the
    cells of the body from getting oxygen. When this happens, the cells die.
  • Cyanide is more harmful
    to the heart and brain than other organs because the heart and brain use a
    lot of oxygen.

Immediate signs
and symptoms of cyanide exposure

  • People exposed to a small
    amount of cyanide by breathing it, absorbing it through their skin, or eating
    foods that contain it may have some or all of the following symptoms within

    • Rapid breathing
    • Restlessness
    • Dizziness
    • Weakness
    • Headache
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Rapid heart rate
  • Exposure to a large amount
    of cyanide by any route may cause these other health effects as well:

    • Convulsions
    • Low blood pressure
    • Slow heart rate
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Lung injury
    • Respiratory failure
      leading to death

What the long-term
health effects may be

Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop delayed neurological effects,
most commonly symptoms resembling Parkinson’s disease.

How people can
protect themselves and what they should do if they are exposed to cyanide

  • First, get fresh air
    by leaving the area where the cyanide was released. Moving to an area with
    fresh air is a good way to reduce the possibility of death from exposure to
    cyanide gas.

    • If the cyanide release
      was outside, move away from the area where the cyanide was released.
    • If the cyanide release
      was indoors, get out of the building.
  • If leaving the area that
    was exposed to cyanide is not an option, stay as low to the ground as possible.
  • Remove any clothing that
    has liquid cyanide on it. If possible, seal the clothing in a plastic bag,
    and then seal that bag inside a second plastic bag.
  • Rinse the eyes with plain
    water for 10 to 15 minutes if they are burning or vision is blurred.
  • Wash any liquid cyanide
    from the skin thoroughly with soap and water.
  • If cyanide is known to
    be ingested (swallowed), do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink. Seek
    medical attention right away.
  • Stay calm. Dial 911 and
    explain what has happened.
  • Wait for emergency personnel
    to arrive.

How cyanide poisoning is treated

Cyanide poisoning is treated
with antidotes and supportive medical care. The most important thing is for
victims to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

How people can get more information about cyanide

People can contact one of
the following:

  • Regional poison control
    center (1-800-222-1222)
  • Centers for Disease Control
    and Prevention Public Response Hotline (CDC)

    • English (888) 246-2675
    • Español (888) 246-2857
    • TTY (866) 874-2646
  • Agency for Toxic Substances
    and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (1-888-422-8737)
  • Centers for Disease Control
    and Prevention (CDC), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
    (NIOSH), Pocket
    Guide to Chemical Hazards

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