In 1978 about 900 people, members of a religious sect called the People's Temple, died in Guyana, South America. Founded in California by Jim Jones, a faith-healing preacher, the sect comprised a motley group including drug addicts, the maladjusted, mentally afflicted, and some ex-convicts. When a group of relatives arrived determined to investigate the activities of the sect, the founder managed to convince his followers to drink a potion prepared by the medical officer, which contained potassium cyanide and was highly effective. Jones then shot himself.
Auschwitz using a commercial insecticide called Zyklon B, which liberates hydrogen cyanide. There are a number of cyanide salts, the most commonly known being potassium cyanide. There are other chemicals that contain the cyanide group, for example sodium cyanide, potassium ferricyanide, and acetonitrile. Some of these chemicals are used in industry for case-hardening steel, in photographic processes, in electroplating, and in the extraction of gold and silver from ores. The potential for accidental poisoning therefore exists in these industries.
Cyanides are also used in laboratories. At one time it was used to destroy wasps' nests and to fumigate buildings, but when this led to accidental poisonings other chemicals were used instead. Volatile cyanides can be released when certain materials burn, notably polyurethane foam, which means that people trapped in fires may suffer from cyanide poisoning by inhaling the fumes.
There are also natural products that contain cyanide, for example the plant cassava (see pp. 255-6) and various fruit kernels such as almonds, apricots, and apples. Oil of bitter almonds, which is used in cooking, contains enough cyanide to be lethal, and people have committed suicide by drinking it.
Two cases of accidental poisoning with cyanide reported in i98i involved groups of children in Israel who ate apricot kernels, which are, apparently, 'sweet and tasty'. In the first, involving a group of thirteen children, three died about half an hour after eating the 'sweets'. In the other case, which involved eight children, one died and the others were ill within two hours of eating the kernels. Apricot and almond kernels contain a substance called amygdalin,* a sugar-like molecule which has a cyanide group within it. The cyanide is released when the kernel is chewed because an enzyme in the kernel is released and becomes active when it is chewed in the presence of saliva. The enzyme breaks down the amygdalin to release cyanide. The exact number of apricot kernels that need to be eaten before adverse effects appear depends on the individual and on the type of kernel. Fifty or more kernels will certainly have adverse effects, but as few as twelve bitter almond kernels have been reported to cause serious toxic effects in an individual.
The cassava plant has also been responsible for a number of poisoning cases and can be a major problem in parts of the world where the crop is
* Amygdalin was sold to cancer patients as an alternative medicine called Laeotrile in the 1960s and i970s. In the USA the FDA legislated against its use and the perpetrator was charged with fraud. Demand persisted from some cancer patients, and the US National Cancer Institute and the FDA conducted a clinical trial. It was not found to be effective and was labelled 'a toxic drug that is not effective in cancer treatment'.
part of the staple diet. Laurel leaves, when crushed, will also release small amounts of hydrogen cyanide and these were once used by entomologists for killing their insect specimens. Occasionally, humans have suffered poisoning from crushed laurel leaves, for example Dr Price, described as the 'last alchemist', who in 1783 poisoned himself with a solution made from crushed laurel leaves. In 1781 Captain Donallan murdered Sir Theodosius Boughton by giving him cherry laurel water in place of his normal medicine.
Cyanides have even been used in legitimate drugs, such as sodium nitro-prusside, a cyanide-containing chemical used as a drug for lowering blood pressure. The chemical releases cyanide during its metabolism, and when large doses have been given this has caused the poisoning of patients.
Thankfully, the body has a detoxication system for cyanide, presumably because of the presence of naturally occurring cyanides in plants. This defence mechanism, however, can be easily overwhelmed and fatalities do occur (see p. 220). If someone working with a cyanide is found frothing a little around the mouth, an unusually brighter red colour than normal, and smelling of bitter almonds (a bit like marzipan), all is not lost, however. If they are still alive, there is hope, for there are several antidotes and treatments for cyanide poisoning. Unfortunately, not everyone can smell cyanide as there appears to be a genetic deficiency in some people which means that they cannot detect it by its smell.
Most laboratories and industries where cyanide is used should have an antidote available.
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