A Primer on Hydrogen Cyanide

Hydrogen cyanide, or HCN, is one of the notoriously poisonous substances found in the world. Along with arsenic, polonium, and thallium, this agent is known to quickly affect humans and animals. That’s why you’re likely to find a gas analyzer or monitor in a factory (to identify it). Read on to find out more about this toxic chemical.

What It Is

Also called prussic acid, hydrogen cyanide was first discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele from the pigment Prussian blue. Other names for this chemical are formonitrile and hydrocyanic acid. It takes a colorless or pale-blue liquid form at temperatures below 78 degrees Fahrenheit; when this is raised, the fluid transforms into a colorless gas. HCN is said to have a bitter almond odor or a musty old sneakers smell. Not many people can pick up this scent, even when there are strong concentrations of it in an area.

Where It’s Found

Formonitrile may be generated in many ways, including treating cyanide salts with acid or oxidizing ammonia. Its liquid form is used in electroplating, fumigating, mining, creating synthetic fibers, and synthesizing chemicals. Its gaseous state is a byproduct of manufacturing nitrogen-containing materials. The paper, plastic, silk, and wool industries all emit HCN, so these factories are required to have a process gas analyzer.

This substance can also be found in certainfoods and plants, such as almonds, lima beans, fruit pits, flaxseed, cassava, and bamboo shoots. But don’t worry. These only contain small, nontoxic amounts. Another source of hydrogen cyanide is cigarette smoke.

Why It’s Harmful

What makes this gas or liquid toxic is that it binds itself to blood cells, affecting the absorption and distribution of oxygen in the body. Upon inhaling or ingesting HCN, a person may experience dizziness, headache, nausea, hyperventilation, palpitation, fatigue, and restlessness. In severe cases, convulsions, loss of consciousness, slowed heart rate, and respiratory failure may occur. People who’ve been exposed to high concentrations of this substance are likely to develop nerve, brain, and heart damage.

Touching hydrocyanic acid can leave burn marks on the skin. This is a bigger problem for younger children, as their skin may absorb the chemical faster, increasing their risk of other complications.

How It’s Managed

Given its poisonous nature and the disastrous consequences it can bring, monitoring the presence of HCN is crucial. Because it’s difficult to detect, professionals have designed special tools and gadgets that can perform this function. One example is the gas analyzer, which can spot, analyze, and measure the amount of hydrogen cyanide found in air, in water, or on land.