Facts About Hydrogen Cyanide in Cigarette Smoke

Cigarette burning out
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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 these seemingly benign ingredients in cigarettes are burned, however, 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.

Amount of Hydrogen Cyanide in Cigarettes

While no one would willingly breathe hydrogen cyanide into their lungs, smokers do it multiple times with every cigarette they inhale. The amount varies, but for U.S. cigarette brands, the level of hydrogen cyanide in inhaled mainstream smoke ranges from 0.6 percent to 27 percent.

And because it is also present in secondhand smoke, nonsmokers are also at risk of breathing in this poison when exposed to cigarette smoke.

Smoking cigarettes is a significant 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.

Cyanide can be found in nature as well. Peach pits, apple seeds, and some plants contain small amounts of cyanide.

Effects of Exposure

It is unlikely that a person would suffer cyanide poisoning from cigarette smoke, although breathing in small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, especially in enclosed spaces can contribute to the following physical problems, some of which, (headache, dizziness) are common for smokers:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness
  • nausea
  • vomiting

A larger exposure to this toxic gas can be very dangerous and 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. People with serious symptoms will need to be hospitalized.

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Article Sources
  • Centers for Disease Control. Facts About Cyanide.
  • Chronic Toxicity Summary for Hydrogen Cyanide. California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.