How is cyanide used as a chemical weapon?

Updated: May 30, 2020
  • Author: Inna Leybell, MD; Chief Editor: Michael A Miller, MD  more...
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HCN (North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] designation AC) is one of two cyanide chemical warfare agents [6, 7, 8] ; the other is cyanogen chloride (NATO designation CK). Cyanide is a rapidly lethal agent when used in enclosed spaces where high concentrations can be achieved easily. [9, 10, 11, 12] In addition, because of the extensive use of cyanide in industry in the United States, this agent presents a credible threat for terrorist use. [7]

Cyanide was first used as a chemical weapon in the form of gaseous HCN in World War I. Starting in 1915, the French military used approximately 4000 tons of cyanide, without notable success. The failure of this measure was probably attributable to the high volatility of cyanide and the inability of the 1- to 2-lb munitions used to deliver the amounts of chemical required for biologic effects. [7, 8]

The introduction of cyanogen chloride by the French in 1916 made available a compound that, being both more toxic and less volatile, was a more effective chemical agent. Other alleged military uses of cyanide include Japanese attacks on China before and during World War II and Iraqi attacks on Kurds in the 1980s.

For related information, see the Disaster Preparedness and Aftermath Resource Center. [13, 14]

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