– Also called prussic acid
– Chemical compound of carbon triple bonded to nitrogen
– Found naturally (fruit seeds and tobacco) or easily manufactured
– Can be ingested (orally or topically) and inhaled
– Exposure leads to death in minutes
– Was the gas used in Nazi extermination camps
– Poison of choice in the Jonestown Massacre and Tylenol poisonings
A chemical substance, cyanide is found naturally in a lot of fruits such as apple seeds and almond and apricot stones, as well as in tobacco (and its smoke). Cyanide is recognisable by its bitter almond smell, although not everyone is able to smell it, and it doesn’t always release the smell.
Spies carried cyanide tablets in WWII as they were thought to lead to a quick and painless death, however modern science now shows that wasn’t the case. Only 1.5mg per kg of body weight is enough to kill in minutes. Essentially it stops the body producing energy resulting in seizures, an inability to breathe and cardiac arrest. It takes 2 to 5 minutes to kill, but doesn’t render the person unconscious, so an horrific death. Survivors, although rare, may suffer Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders.
There are now measures to counter cyanide posioning: the cyanide antidote kit and hydroxocobalamin. Activated charcoal may also prevent absorption from the gastrointestinal tract if cyanide salts have been ingested.
Almonds are now safe to eat, thanks to a mutation thousands of years ago that allowed humans to farm the sweet almonds and leave the unsafe bitter almonds alone. But other seeds, such as apricot, aren’t quite as safe. In 2016, apricot kernels were billed as the next big superfood and cancer cure (claims scientifically debunked) – supplements such as Novodalin or B17 are made from apricot kernels, and yes, they contain cyanide. Eating more than two kernels a day puts an adult over the safe level of cyanide. A 67-year-old Melbourne, Australia man was reported as taking 3 tablets of Novodalin each day, as well as grinding up his own brew at home – adding up to more than 17mg of cyanide a day. Blood tests revealed he had cyanide 25 times acceptable levels in his bloodstream.
There are a number of high profile cyanide homicides:
Jonestown Massacre (1978) – more than 900 members of an American cult called the Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide-murder under the direction of their leader, Jim Jones. It took place at the so-called Jonestown settlement in the South American nation of Guyana.
Tylenol Poisonings (1982) – The Chicago Tylenol Murders were a series of cyanide deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area. Seven people died in the original poisonings (although several more deaths occurred thanks to copycats. No-one was ever charged or convicted.
Stella Nickell (1986) – was one such copycat of the Tylenol murders. She was the first person to be found guilty of violating the US Federal Anti-Tampering Act after putting cyanide in Excedrin capsules in an effort to kill her husband. Stella was traced thanks to some fish tank algae treatment she mixed in the bowl she then used for the cyanide. She was convicted on two counts of murder.