Cyanide is a fast-acting, potentially deadly chemical that prevents the cells of the body from using oxygen properly. When this happens, the cells die. Cyanide is released from natural substances found in some foods, such as apple seeds and peach pits, and in certain plants. Cyanide is in cigarette smoke and the substances released when materials, such as plastic, burn. Cyanide is used to make paper, textiles and plastics. It is in the chemicals used to develop photographs. Cyanide gas is used to kill pests on ships and in buildings.
Cyanide can exist in different forms. One form is hydrogen cyanide, which is a colorless gas. It has a “bitter almond” smell – an odor that may not be easily recognized.
Please note: Just because you come into contact with hydrogen cyanide does not mean you will get sick from it.
The main way people may be poisoned by hydrogen cyanide is by breathing in air contaminated with the gas.
If you are near an area where cyanide gas was released, emergency personnel may tell you to either leave the area or “shelter in place” (stay put and take cover) inside a building to avoid coming into contact with the chemical.
The seriousness of poisoning caused by cyanide depends on the amount of cyanide a person comes into contact with, the way a person comes into contact with it and the length of time that a person is exposed. Breathing in cyanide gas causes the most harm, but swallowing cyanide can be a danger as well.
People who come into contact with 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 minutes:
A large amount of cyanide by any route/method may cause these other health effects as well:
Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop heart and brain damage.
The effects of hydrogen cyanide will depend on the concentration of exposure, length of time and way the person is exposed. A highly concentrated solution or large amount of the gas is more likely to cause severe effects, including death.
Cyanide poisoning is treated with specific antidotes and supportive medical care (intravenous fluids, medicine to control pain) in a hospital setting. The most important thing is for injured, ill or stricken victims to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
Prevention of illness after contact: First, leave the area where the hydrogen cyanide was released and move to fresh air.
There is no vaccine for hydrogen cyanide poisoning.
If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of hydrogen cyanide poisoning, call your healthcare provider or the Illinois Poison Center right away. The toll-free number for the poison center is 1-800-222-1222.