Hydrogen cyanide is one of hundreds of chemicals found in the smoke of cigarettes. This particular chemical is both harmful to the smoker and to those who may inhale the second hand smoke that is present in the air. Hydrogen cyanide is most well known as a poison used as a gassing agent in World War Two called Zyklon B. In large concentrations, this poison will cause a rapid death by asphyxiation due to its ability to block oxygen from the cells causing immediate suffocation. In cigarette smoke, the concentration of hydrogen cyanide is much smaller but it still contributes to a number of health problems most commonly found in long term smokers or with those who work with this chemical in an industrial occupation.
Hydrogen cyanide is used in the manufacturing for many different materials including plastics, paper products, precious metal recovering, synthetic fiber processing and electroplating. People who work in the manufacturing process and are consistantly exposed to hydrogen cyanide will also exhibit the same symptoms and health problems as smokers.
In small concentrations, the effects of hydrogen cyanide exposure lead to problems of the central nervous system. These problems include: muscle weakness, headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Long term smokers and industrial workers will usually also exhibit heart palpitations and sleep apnea, gasping, shortness of breath, tremors, fainting, and thyroid problems. Thyroid problems caused by hydrogen cyanide exposure include the inability of the thyroid gland to properly absorb iodine. Individuals that have been exposed to higher concentrations of hydrogen cyanide that develop thyroid problems and cannot absorb iodine may develop goiters.
While small amounts of hydrogen cyanide will not cause immediate death, smokers are very slowly poisoning themselves with hydrogen cyanide with every puff of a cigarette. Although not classified as a carcinogen, hydrogen cyanide does cause other health problems that are just as detrimental to the health and overall well being of a person who smokes. A person who smokes will have a decreased lifespan of 10-15 years if they continue to smoke for long periods of time.
Cyanide is also present in plants that are eaten on a daily basis. A cyanide producing compound called linamarin is present naturally in Cassava (Manihot esculenta) which is a plant that produces a starchy root similar to a sweet potato and is staple in the diets of people living in tropical and sub-tropical countries all over the world. A specific protocol of preparations are performed to eliminate the linamarin to make this root safe to consume. But when steps are skipped or not performed carefully, the linamarin is left in the cassava and is metabolized by the body into metabolites of cyanide which will be introduced into the body. In countries where cassava is a mainstay, a condition known as konzo will be evident in the population especially after times of famine and drought. Konzo is a disorder caused by the ingestion of cyanide and causes weakness, lack of coordination and even paralysis of the lower limbs. Sadly, children are more susceptible to this type of cyanide poisoning due to their smaller body size and weight.
Continuing to smoke cigarettes even after learning about what exactly is present in the smoke that is being continuously inhaled is, unfortunately, a personal decision that has to be made by the smoker themselves. Knowing that a poisonous gas used as a genocidal agent of war in World War Two is slowly taking your own life should be enough of wake up call for most people.
Stewart, Amy. Wicked Plants: The weed that killed Lincoln’s mother and other botanical atrocities. New York: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009.