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Cyanide

What is cyanide?
Cyanide is a fast-acting, potentially deadly chemical that exists in different forms. Cyanide can exist as a solid, a liquid, or as invisible gas.
Where is cyanide normally found, and how is it normally used?
Very small amounts of cyanide are found naturally in some foods and plants. It is also found in substances given off when things burn. For example, cyanide is present in cigarette smoke, and in smoke from burning plastics. Cyanide is used to make paper, textiles, and plastics; to clean metals and separate gold from its ore, and in chemicals used to develop photographs. Cyanide is also used as a pesticide in ships and buildings.
How are people exposed to cyanide?
People can be exposed by breathing air, drinking water, eating food, or touching soil that contains cyanide. People can also be poisoned by absorbing cyanide through their skin. Most people exposed to cyanide work in industries that use the chemical in manufacturing. Smoking cigarettes and breathing second-hand smoke also exposes people to very small amounts of cyanide.
How have people been deliberately poisoned with cyanide?
Hydrogen cyanide was used by the Germans to kill people in gas chambers in World War II. Cyanide gas may have also been used along with other chemical agents during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, against people in northern Iraq.
How does cyanide hurt people?
Cyanide cuts off oxygen to cells. When this happens, the cells die. Cyanide is especially harmful to the heart and brain because they use a lot of oxygen. The amount of damage caused by cyanide depends on (1) how much a person is exposed to, (2) the route of exposure, and (3) how long the exposure lasts. Breathing cyanide gas in an enclosed space causes the most harm.
What are the signs and symptoms of cyanide exposure?
People exposed to small amounts of cyanide may have some or all of the following symptoms within minutes: rapid breathing; restlessness; dizziness; weakness; headache; nausea and vomiting; rapid heart rate. People exposed to larger amounts of cyanide may also have: convulsions; low blood pressure; slow heart rate; loss of consciousness; lung injury, and respiratory failure leading to death.
What are the long-term effects of cyanide poisoning?
Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop problems of the brain and central nervous system with symptoms that resemble Parkinson's disease.
What should people do if they are exposed to cyanide?
  1. Get fresh air as fast as you can. If the cyanide release was outdoors, move away from the area. If the cyanide release was indoors, get out of the building.
  2. If you can't leave the exposed area, stay low to the ground. Cyanide gas is lighter than air, so it rises.
  3. Quickly remove any clothing that has liquid cyanide on it. If possible, seal the clothing in a plastic bag, then seal the first bag in a second plastic bag.
  4. Rinse the eyes. If eyes are burning or vision is blurred, rinse the eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes.
  5. Wash the skin. If your skin is exposed to solid or liquid, wash thoroughly with soap and water as quickly as possible. If exposed to a gas, move away from the area quickly.
  6. Do not induce vomiting or drink fluids. If cyanide has been swallowed, do not induce vomiting or drink fluids. Get medical attention right away.
  7. Call 911 and wait for emergency help to come.
How is cyanide poisoning treated?
Poisoning is treated with antidotes and supportive medical care. The most important thing is for victims to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.
Is there anything specific that New Yorkers can do to prepare for a possible bioterrorism event?
The best way for a family to safe is to be as prepared as possible before any disaster strikes. Consistent with long-standing guidelines on disaster preparedness, families should plan to provide for all their necessities for a 3- to 4-day period, in the event that they have to remain inside their home for their safety. They also might consider putting together a family emergency plan, so that all family members (e.g., schoolchildren or homebound relatives) could be cared for in case the main caregivers are unable to return home at their usual times.

The New York City Health Department, along with other government agencies and health institutions, will do everything possible to protect the health of all persons who live, work, or are visiting in New York City. Were a biological release to occur in New York City, the public would be informed immediately through the news media of measures that could be taken to protect their health. If antibiotics or vaccines were recommended, instructions would be provided on where to receive these medications in emergency clinics that would be established by the City in multiple locations throughout the five boroughs.

What if my fears about bioterrorism are having a serious impact on my family and work life?
After the events of September 11th, 2001 it is reasonable for individuals to feel anxious about their personal safety. If your fear grows to the point that it stops you from doing things that you would normally do, it might be helpful to talk with a professional counselor. Your healthcare provider can make a referral, or you can call one of the following help lines:

English LifeNet:(800) 543-3638(800) LIFENET
Spanish LifeNet:(877) 298-3373(877) AYUDESE
Chinese LifeNet:(877) 990-8585 
American Red Cross:(212) 787-1000 

Last Updated: January 15, 2013