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Cyanide

Cyanide

JUDSON KNIGHT

The prospects for an intelligence operative captured by enemy forces are grim. Soldiers and other war fighters have recourse to Geneva Convention protocols concerning treatment, but personnel working in intelligence and covert operations are effectively denied such protection by virtue of their mission's clandestine nature. The best hope is to be released in a prisoner exchange, sometimes after years. Even then, imprisonment in many countries is likely to include lengthy and exposure to coercive methods, including beatings and/or torture whose intention is to induce the operative to divulge sensitive information. For some, the risk is too great, and therefore, intelligence operatives and agents have often gone into dangerous situations equipped with suicide devices. Most of these employ one form of disguise or another to hide a deadly compound of nitrogen, carbon, and other elements known as cyanide.

The chemistry and biological effects of cyanide. When an atom of carbon bonds with an atom of nitrogen, that is cyanide, an ionic compound designated as CNhence the name cyanide. The bonding of these atoms with other elements produces various forms: hydrogen cyanide (HCN), cyanogen chloride (CNCl), sodium cyanide (NaCN), or potassium cyanide (KCN). The first two are colorless gases, while the second two appear in crystal form. In addition to these chemical formulas, cyanide is sometimes referred to by military organizations as AN (hydrogen cyanide) or CK (cyanogen chloride).

Applied in materials for exterminating rats and other pests, removing artificial nails, or developing photographs, cyanide has a number of practical uses. It is found in some foods, most notably cassava, and when combined with another chemical, it produces a life-sustaining substance, vitamin B12. Yet even in small quantities, cyanide is harmful, a fact illustrated by poisoning deaths in parts of Africa where the diet is heavy in cassava. Cyanide is also one of the most dangerous toxins in cigarette smoke, which is the form of cyanide to which the average person is most likely to be exposed.

Cyanide prevents the body's cells from receiving oxygen, and particularly effects the heart and brain because those two vital organs are particularly dependent on the body's oxygen supply. Within minutes, the victim of cyanide poisoning in very small quantities will begin breathing rapidly and display signs of restlessness. Other symptoms include dizziness, weakness, headache, nausea and vomiting, and a rapid heart rate. Exposure to larger amounts causes rapid convulsions, severe lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, loss of consciousness, lung injury, and ultimately respiratory failure that leads to death.

Cyanide in history. Because cyanide is an effective killer, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein included hydrogen cyanide among the chemical weapons he used against the Kurds in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Forty years earlier, during World War II, Nazi Germany used hydrogen cyanidein the form of Zyklon Bas an even more efficient agent of genocide in its death camps, where it killed millions of Jews and others. Ironically, in the same war, the Nazis' enemies carried cyanide pills on their persons for a very different reason, to eliminate themselves if captured.

Personnel working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the war were often equipped with "L" pills (L for lethal ) containing cyanide in crystal form. In some cases, cyanide could be hidden in the earpiece of a pair of glasses. When cornered, the operative could take off his glasses and pretend to thoughtfully bite the end of the earpiece while thinking about what he would say next. But there would not be any next statement: within seconds of consuming this deadly toxin, the operative would be dead.

A similar situation happened in 1977, when Soviet diplomat Aleksandr Ogorodnik found that he had reached the end of the line. He had been secretly working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who knew him by the code name TRIGON. When the Soviets discovered they had a traitor in their midst, they presented him with a confession to sign. Ogorodnik, well aware of what lay in store for him, asked to use his own pen, and when it was given to him, he bit off the end, ingesting a dose of cyanide hidden there. Within seconds, he was dead.

In order to keep this means of escape handy, operatives have gone to extraordinary lengths. Among the items used for concealing cyanide pills in the past is a container shaped like a cigarette lighter and made to fit in the rectum. In 1960, U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers carried a cyanide capsule on his person. Instead of committing suicide, when the Soviets shot down his plane, Powers parachuted to earth, and was taken prisoner. Later, after his captors had reaped enormous propaganda benefits from the incident, he was traded for a Soviet spy in a prisoner exchange.

FURTHER READING:

BOOKS:

Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate Spy Book. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

Minnery, John. CIA Catalog of Clandestine Weapons, Tools, and Gadgets. Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 1990.

ELECTRONIC:

Facts About Suicide. Centers for Disease Control. <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/cyanide/index.asp> (March 19, 2003).

International Spy Museum. <http://www.spymuseum.org> (March 19, 2003).

SEE ALSO

Assassination
Assassination Weapons, Mechanical
Biochemical Assassination Weapons
Chemical Warfare
Intelligence Agent
U-2 Incident

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cyanide process

cyanide process or cyanidation, method for extracting gold from its ore. The ore is first finely ground and may be concentrated by flotation; if it contains certain impurities, it may be roasted. It is then mixed with a dilute solution of sodium cyanide (or potassium or calcium cyanide) while air is bubbled through it. The gold is oxidized and forms the soluble aurocyanide complex ion, Au(CN)2-1. (Silver, usually present as an impurity, forms a similar soluble ion.) The solution is separated from the ore by methods such as filtration, and the gold is precipitated by adding powdered zinc. The precipitate usually contains silver, which is also precipitated, and unreacted zinc. The precipitate is further refined, e.g., by smelting to remove the zinc and by treating with nitric acid to dissolve the silver. The cyanide process was developed (1887) by J. S. MacArthur and others in Glasgow, Scotland. It is now the most important and widely used process for extracting gold from ores.

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cyano group

cyano group (sī´ənō, sī-ăn´ō), in chemistry, functional group that consists of a carbon atom joined to a nitrogen atom by a triple bond; it can be joined to an atom or another group by a single bond to the carbon atom. When a cyano group is joined to hydrogen, it forms hydrogen cyanide. When it is joined to a metal, it forms a metal cyanide. When it is joined to an alkyl group or aryl group, it forms a nitrile. When two cyano groups are joined directly to one another, they form the cyanogen molecule, NCCN. Both the cyano group and hydrogen cyanide have been found in interstellar space.

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cyanide

cyanide Salt or ester of hydrocyanic acid (prussic acid, HCN). The most important cyanides are sodium cyanide (NaCN) and potassium cyanide (KCN), both of which are deadly poisonous. Cyanides have many industrial uses – in electroplating, for the heat treatment of metals, in the extraction of silver and gold, in photography, and in insecticides and pigments.

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cyanide

cy·a·nide / ˈsīəˌnīd/ • n. Chem. a salt or ester of hydrocyanic acid, containing the anion CN or the group −CN. The salts are generally extremely toxic. Compare with nitrile. ∎  sodium or potassium cyanide used as a poison or in the extraction of gold and silver.

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cyanide

cyanideabide, applied, aside, astride, backslide, beside, bestride, betide, bide, bride, chide, Clyde, cockeyed, coincide, collide, confide, cried, decide, divide, dried, elide, five-a-side, glide, guide, hide, hollow-eyed, I'd, implied, lied, misguide, nationwide, nide, offside, onside, outride, outside, pan-fried, pied, pie-eyed, popeyed, pride, provide, ride, Said, shied, side, slide, sloe-eyed, snide, square-eyed, starry-eyed, statewide, Strathclyde, stride, subdivide, subside, tide, tried, undyed, wall-eyed, wide, worldwide •carbide • unmodified •overqualified, unqualified •dignified, signified •unverified • countrified •unpurified • unclassified •unspecified • sissified • unsanctified •self-satisfied, unsatisfied •unidentified • unquantified •unfortified • unjustified • uncertified •formaldehyde • oxhide • rawhide •cowhide • allied • landslide • bolide •paraglide • polyamide • bromide •thalidomide • selenide • cyanide •unoccupied

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cyanide

cyanide (sī´ənīd´), chemical compound containing the cyano group, -CN. Cyanides are salts or esters of hydrogen cyanide (hydrocyanic acid, HCN) formed by replacing the hydrogen with a metal (e.g., sodium or potassium) or a radical (e.g., ammonium or ethyl). The most common and widely used cyanides are those of sodium and potassium; they are often referred to simply as "cyanide." Both are white, crystalline, chemically active compounds. They are used as insecticides, in making pigments, in metallurgy (e.g., electroplating and case hardening), and in refining gold and silver by the cyanide process. Organic cyanides are called nitriles. The ethyl ester of hydrogen cyanide (CH3CH2CN) is called variously ethyl cyanide, propionitrile, propane nitrile, nitrilopropane, and cyanoethane; propane nitrile is the approved name in the nomenclature system for organic chemistry adopted by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). Most cyanides are deadly poisons that cause respiratory failure. Symptoms of cyanide poisoning include an odor of bitter almond on the breath, dizziness, convulsions, collapse, and, often, froth on the mouth. In case of cyanide poisoning a doctor should be summoned immediately. If the poison was swallowed, vomiting should be induced. Artificial respiration should be used if needed.

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cyanide

cyanide (sy-ă-nyd) n. any of the notoriously poisonous salts of hydrocyanic acid. Cyanides combine with and render inactive the enzymes of the tissues responsible for cellular respiration, and therefore they kill extremely quickly.

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