What are the Different Sources of Cyanide?

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  • Written By: Meshell Powell
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2016
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Cyanide is a potentially toxic substance that, in high concentrations, works to prevent the cells of the body from receiving adequate amounts of oxygen. This makes poisoning potentially lethal. Cyanic glucoside, the name of naturally occurring cyanide, is present in many plants, bacteria, and fungi. Various chemical reactions can also produce types of the substance. In safe doses, this substance can be used with positive results. For instance, it is being used as a cancer treatment drug in some countries.

The presence of naturally occurring cyanide in plants is believed to be an evolutionary protective device. For instance, if an animal becomes sick after eating such a plant, chances are good that the animal will not eat the plant again, ensuring the survival of the particular species of plant. There are more than 1,000 different plants that contain cyanic glucoside, including items used extensively in the human diet. Some of these include green beans, apple seeds, and bamboo shoots.

Most illnesses related to this substance are not caused by plants. The majority of the harmful aspects of this chemical are no longer present once the plant or food item has been cooked. If illness does occur due to ingesting food containing cyanic glucoside, it is generally very mild and not at all life-threatening. This is because small amounts of cyanic glucoside are broken down by the cells of the body and passed through the urine.


Hydrogen cyanide is created by various chemical methods in which oxygen is removed or not made available. Cigarette smoke contains this chemical, as do certain plastics and other materials when they are burned. Photography and the process of metal processing can also release this chemical. Breathing in high levels of this substance can cause suffocation and even death, as the body is no longer able to process and use any incoming oxygen. Immediate medical assistance is crucial at this point.

Some chemicals react with the human body in such a way that they actually turn to cyanide when ingested. The majority of these chemicals have been removed from the market, but some are still available. Some products potentially containing these chemicals include nail polish removers, some solvents, and solutions used in the process of plastics manufacturing. Insecticides frequently contained cyanide at one time. However, as research started showing more risks associated with this chemical, most companies have since removed it from their formulations.


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