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What have almonds and HCN got in common? Read on to find out.

What is hydrogen cyanide?

In this week’s blog, we take a look at one of the more obscure gases – hydrogen cyanide (HCN). How is it made, how can you identify it, and what are the dangers?

Analox Sensor Technology strive to provide gas sensors and analysers that help look after the air you breathe.

We recognise that there are a variety of gases used in different industries and applications, and our purpose is to design and manufacture gas monitoring solutions that are suitable for your needs.

Some of the most common gases that require monitoring are carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and oxygen (O2). However, we also cater for the more obscure gases, like hydrogen cyanide (HCN).

You may be familiar with the term cyanide, as it is a fast-acting poison which is commonly referred to in thriller stories as a murder weapon or suicide pill given to secret agents in case they are captured.

However the pill is more likely to contain either potassium cyanide or sodium cyanide, rather than hydrogen cyanide.

What is hydrogen cyanide?

Hydrogen cyanide is a colourless to a pale blue liquid or gas, with a distinct odour resembling bitter almonds.

Other names for hydrogen cyanide include prussic acid and hydrocyanic acid.

It is produced industrially by reacting methane and ammonia in air at a high temperature over a platinum catalyst, and over a million tonnes are produced globally every year.

Hydrogen cyanide gas is found naturally throughout the environment at low levels as it is released from combustion of organic matter, volcanoes, and natural processes of certain plants and bacteria. It is also present in car exhaust fumes, building fires and cigarettes.

Hydrogen cyanide is primarily used in the manufacture of other chemicals for use in paints, plastics and synthetic fibres such as nylon. Sodium and potassium cyanide and other cyanide salts can be made from hydrogen cyanide and these are widely used in metal processing including electroplating and hardening.

Large amounts of sodium cyanide are used to extract gold and silver from ores, and hydrogen cyanide and other cyanide compounds have been used as a fumigant to control pests in grain stores.

How does hydrogen cyanide affect the body?

Hydrogen cyanide is particularly dangerous due to its toxic/asphyxiating effects which interfere with the normal use of oxygen by nearly every organ of the body.

When hydrogen cyanide enters the body it combines with enzymes in tissue associated with cellular oxidation, meaning they render oxygen unavailable to the tissues.

Exposure to low concentrations of between 20 to 40 parts per million (ppm) may cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and difficulty breathing, which usually cease after being removed from the exposure.

Inhalation of gaseous hydrogen cyanide at 100-300 ppm will lead to more serious effects such as loss of consciousness, coma, and death within 10-60 minutes. If the concentration reaches 2,000 ppm of hydrogen cyanide, death will occur in one minute.

Because this gas is widely used, exposure may occur in a number of situations, including the workplace.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have set permissible exposure limits of 10 ppm averaged over an 8-hour workshift, while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended exposure limit is 4.7 ppm.

According to OSHA, fatal concentrations in air that have been reported previously are 109 ppm for one hour, 182 ppm for 10 minutes, and 364 ppm for 2 minutes.

To discuss your monitoring requirements for hydrogen cyanide and other gases contact Analox Sensor Technology on +44 (0)1642 711400 or email analoxast@analox.net

Author: Araminta Hartley, Content Writer

Founded in 1981, Analox Sensor Technology provides niche and custom gas detection solutions to industries including beverage and fast food, commercial diving and laboratories. Analox has over 325 years of collective, specialist electronics and software engineering expertise, as well as a worldwide distributor network. Contact us to see how we can provide expert gas monitoring solutions and help you achieve your goals.

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