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Hydrogen Cyanide in Cigarette Smoke

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Updated July 09, 2008

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Hydrogen Cyanide in Cigarette Smoke
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Cigarettes can contain up to 599 possible additives, all of which are approved for use by the U.S. government.

When the ingredients in cigarettes are burned, they produce a whole host of chemical compounds, many of which are poisonous and/or carcinogenic. Hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, poisonous gas, is one of the toxic byproducts present in cigarette smoke.

Under the name of Zyklon B, hydrogen cyanide was used as a genocidal agent during World War II. While no one would willingly breathe hydrogen cyanide into their lungs, smokers do it multiple times with every cigarette they inhale. And because hydrogen cyanide is present in secondhand smoke, nonsmokers are also at risk of breathing in this poison when they are exposed to cigarette smoke. Smoking cigarettes is probably a major source of cyanide exposure for people who do not work in cyanide-related industries.

In manufacturing, cyanide is present in the chemicals used to make numerous products such as paper, textiles and plastics. In gaseous form, cyanide is used in pesticides to exterminate rats and other undesirable vermin.

While it is unlikely that a person would suffer cyanide poisoning from cigarette smoke, breathing in small amounts of hydrogen cyanide may cause:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
Larger amounts may cause:
  • gasping
  • irregular heartbeats
  • seizures
  • fainting
  • rapid death
Generally, the more serious the exposure, the more severe the symptoms. Similar symptoms may be produced when solutions of cyanide are ingested or come in contact with the skin.

Treatment for hydrogen cyanide poisoning includes breathing pure oxygen, and in the case of serious symptoms, treatment with specific cyanide antidotes. Persons with serious symptoms will need to be hospitalized.

See Also: Pesticides in Cigarette Smoke

Source:

Facts About Cyanide. 27 January, 2004. Centers for Disease Control.

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