Monday, February 27, 2012

because no one demanded it: why cyanide kills quickly

You remember that scene in that spy movie you were watching where the evil spy cracks open a false tooth full of poison and dies before the good guys can get their questions answered?  Yeah, that was cyanide in that tooth.  It's a thing.  Spies use it to kill themselves.  So did Hitler.  If you're anything like me, I'm sure you've always wondered how the fuck that actually works.  Don't worry, I know you're not like me, but click the thing, maybe you'll learn something.

Cyanide is a chemical compound that consists of a carbon atom triple-bonded to a nitrogen atom.  Like most things involving awful chemicals you must not put in your body, it was created accidentally during an industrial manufacturing process.  In this case, some jerk was making a bunch of blue dye.  He ended up with giant buckets of murder juice, because why not.  in 1706, a paint maker in Berlin was attempting to make a new shade of blue, and during the process, he formed giant cyanide crystals, like Superman's house, except if Superman's house could kill you if you licked the walls.  That blue they made was a hell of a blue, and it was used most famously to paint this thing here, I'm sure you've seen it around:

The Great Wave off Kanagawa
So ok, we know where it comes from, but what does it do to people?  Are you sure I shouldn't eat it?  Maybe it tastes awesome, you don't know. 

Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

Many cyanides are highly toxic. The cyanide anion is an inhibitor of the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase (also known as aa3) in the fourth complex of the electron transport chain (found in the membrane of the mitochondria of eukaryotic cells). It attaches to the iron within this protein. The binding of cyanide to this cytochrome prevents transport of electrons from cytochrome c oxidase to oxygen. As a result, the electron transport chain is disrupted, meaning that the cell can no longer aerobically produce ATP for energy. Tissues that depend highly on aerobic respiration, such as the central nervous system and the heart, are particularly affected. This is an example of histotoxic hypoxia.
If you're anything like me, you don't know what any of that means.  So let's turn our peepers to reddit, and in particular someone named Criticalist:

Cyanide can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. It acts by blocking the cytochrome C oxidase enzyme which is an essential part of intracellular oxygen utilization. What this means is that the cells can no longer use oxygen at a tissue level, no matter that they are being supplied at adequate amounts. Thus you are in effect suffocated. This explains why it acts so quickly - it is a small molecule that can be absorbed easily, and its mechanism of action is on oxygen utilization.
So there you have it.  Cyanide is a pill that suffocates you from the inside out.  According to my research it doesn't even hurt that much (although Hitler was so afraid that it might, he shot himself in the head after taking it).  The symptoms are usually described as dizziness, headache, fatigue, restlessness, confusion, seizures and coma - but severe pain is not usually described. 

So, if ever you become a spy, and you go on a dangerous mission, and they give you a little pill "just in case"... that's what that was.  Cyanide.  And it's not so bad.  Um, thanks for being a spy I guess.  Very cool of you.  Bye!

Cyanide Pill image - Zui-Generiz

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