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Facts about cyanide

What is cyanide?

Cyanide is a rapidly acting, potentially deadly chemical that can exist in various forms. It is a hazardous substance that can be a colourless gas, such as hydrogen cyanide (HCN) or cyanogen chloride (CNCl), or a crystal form such as sodium cyanide (NaCN) or potassium cyanide (KCN).

Cyanide sometimes is described as having a “bitter almond” smell, but it does not always give off an odour, and not everyone can detect this odour.

Where cyanide is found and how it is used?

Cyanide is released from natural substances in some foods and in certain plants such as cassava, lima beans and almonds. Pits and seeds of common fruits, such as apricots, apples, and peaches, may have substantial amounts of chemicals, which are metabolised to cyanide.

The edible parts of these plants contain much lower amounts of these chemicals.

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 swallowed, chemicals found in acetonitrile-based products that are used to remove artificial nails can produce cyanide when metabolised by the body. Hydrogen cyanide, under the name Zyklon B, can be used as ammunition.

How you could be exposed to cyanide?

You could be exposed to cyanide by breathing contaminated air, drinking water, eating food, or touching soil that contains cyanide.

Cyanide enters water, soil, or air as a result of both natural processes and industrial activities. When present in air, it is usually in the form of gaseous hydrogen cyanide.

How cyanide works?

The extent of 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 swallowing cyanide can be toxic as well.

Cyanide gas is most dangerous in enclosed places where the gas will be trapped. It evaporates and disperses quickly in open spaces, making it less harmful outdoors.

Cyanide prevents the cells of the body from using oxygen. When this happens, the cells die. It is more harmful to the heart and brain than to other organs because they use a lot of oxygen.

Immediate signs and symptoms of exposure to cyanide

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 signs and symptoms within minutes:



Nausea and vomiting

Rapid breathing

Rapid heart rate



Exposure to a large amount of cyanide by any route may cause these other health effects as well:


Loss of consciousness

Low blood pressure

Lung injury

Respiratory failure leading to death

Slow heart rate

Long-term health effects of exposure to cyanide

Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop heart, brain and nerve damage.

What does the law say about cyanide?

The Environmental Management Act Cap (20:27) of 2002 as read with Statutory Instrument 12 of 2007 Hazardous Substances, Pesticides and Toxic Substances Regulations  prohibit the importation, transportation, storage, sell or use of any hazardous substance without a licence from EMA. This enables the monitoring of such substances so as to minimise their negative impacts on the environment and human health.


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