Dangerous Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) A Serious Smoke Contaminant

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Dangerous hydrogen cyanide is generated while materials burn in a fire.  Fires do happen, at home, at school, at work and are also happening in our forests and these have become an ever greater issue as drought conditions and heat waves envelope communities.   So, why make a big deal about this in our blog?  Inhalation of the smoke generated, and its nasty contaminant hydrogen cyanide, can impair our ability to escape that fire.  That is a BIG deal.  Then factor in all of the special needs of our ‘special needs’ family to safely conduct an evacuation, possible disorientation from noise, speech and language abilities/inabilities, use of a wheelchair or oxygen, the need to be on top of this takes on more urgency!

The Tomahawk Fire destroys homes and personal property on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. on May 16, 2014. 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing partnered with the Calif. Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to conduct aerial firefighting against several wildfires ablaze in San Diego County. (U.S. Marine Corps photograph by Corporal Tyler C. Gregory, 3rd MAW COMCAM/RELEASED)

A raging wildland fire reducing to ashes whatever is in it’s path.  I remember airport personnel in California having to wear respirators during the worst of the San Diego fire-storms.

Fires create massive amounts of smoke and the smoke is carrying a myriad of particulates and gaseous air contaminants along with the growing heat load from the flames of the fire.  The air contaminants can quickly become dangerous because they will incapacitate you and your cherished family members.  When 2345 deaths of the 2795 total lives lost in 2014 were in a family’s home, doesn’t this ‘light a fire’ under your proverbial backside… bum… booty… behind?

It certainly does when you look at statistics like these.  I was shocked to learn in 2010 how many deaths in Russia were attributed to the 2010 heat wave and the many ensuing fires.  In a Rueter’s news report dated October 25, 2010, these sobering statistics were shared:  ““Nearly 56,000 more (emphasis added) people died nationwide this summer than in the same period last year”, said a monthly Economic Development Ministry report on Russia’s economy. “In connection with the unusual heat, forest fires and smoke, in July of this year 14,500 and in August 41,300 more people died than during the same period last year.” ”  And it was also stated that 700 people a day had died during July when forest fires and a smoldering ‘peat fire’ (fire underground in the soil) surrounded Moscow contributing to that horrific rise in deaths.  Terrible, right?


Dangerous Hydrogen Cyanide

The San Diego Tomahawk Fire destroys homes and personal property on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif. on May 16, 2014.

Take a look at this NFPA data from a 2014 statistics report.

Dangerous Hydrogen Cyanide

Sobering Statistics – We Don’t Have To Be One of Them!

Hotels – Motels – Dormitories – Boarding Houses Are Not Exempt

Did you notice the ‘other residential’ stats?  I know the number isn’t so huge, it’s only 2.2 percent of all reported deaths for 2014, but still, 50 deaths are 50 too many.  Where they occurred is something to take note of too; hotels and motels, dormitories, boarding houses and the like.  If you add in the 65 who lost their lives in public assembly settings, educational, institutional, stores, offices, and other workplace settings, well, 115 deaths is still alarming.  It hits home when we consider that we often find ourselves in store and office settings when we are just out and about, or attending therapy sessions, and just handling life.  So thinking about fire safety not just at home but in other settings is showing insight.

What About Hydrogen Cyanide Makes It SO Bad

So today, let’s address one of the very nasty air contaminants present in smoke, hydrogen cyanide.  As I researched this subject the supporting information confirmed the troubling, nagging feeling in the back of my mind.  There are many references regarding the gruesome history of cyanide.  Many years ago gas chambers were used for executions here in the United States and even more horrible, hydrogen cyanide in the form of a pesticide was used at Auschwitz by the Nazis.  I’m guessing that I really don’t need to say more.  It is just too heartbreaking.  Suffice it to say that what the hydrogen cyanide in smoke does is horrendous.  It chemically, you could say metabolically, will prevent many of the body’s functions at the cellular level hindering the enzyme process and creating cellular death.

Dangerous Hydrogen Cyanide

Functioning Components of Blood

So Here Is The Point

Carbon monoxide is dangerous but hydrogen cyanide is 33 – 35% more dangerous.  It has the faint smell of almonds, which your nose isn’t likely to notice with all of the other intrusive smells from burning materials, and as we will see, this is NOT a good thing.  An exposure to HCN has a profound effect on the central nervous and cardiac systems, the thyroid and the blood.  It interferes with the function of the cellular enzymes.  With the nervous system involved disorientation is going to happen and that means following instructions or responding logically or reasonably will go out the window.

Dr. Inna Leybell, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center said this about what sources release HCN, “Industry widely uses nitriles as solvents and in the manufacturing of plastics.  Nitriles may release HCN during burning or when metabolized after absorption by the skin or gastrointestinal tract.  A number of synthesized and natural compounds produce HCN when burned.  These combustion gasses likely contribute to the morbidity and mortality from smoke inhalation.”  (Medline: Author Inna Leybell, MD)

Everyday Items – Yes When They Burn They Pose A Hazard

Materials In Furniture, Carpeting, Curtains, Computers, and more... all add to the air contaminants of a fire

Everyday Materials In Furniture, Carpeting, Curtains, Computers, and more…add to the air contaminants

Well, no wonder a fire in our home presents this terrible hazard.  Our homes are filled with the stuff that when its burning turns into more than just hydrogen cyanide.  It will include a host of other chemicals.  Of course, carbon monoxide is part of this list but it also includes formaldehyde, acid gasses, phosgene, benzene, dioxins and aromatic hydrocarbons.  As Todd Shoebridge said in his article Carbon Monoxide and Hydrogen Cyanide Make Today’s Fires More Dangerous, “In Short, the smoke of today is a highly complex mixture of solids, liquids, fumes and gases that are produced when there’s a thermal decomposition of materials, or in other words, when these materials burn.”

What’s A Good Mom and Dad Supposed To Do

So my friends, because we don’t want to take any chances with the welfare of our loved ones, because we already are doing everything we can to provide well for them and ensure their safety, here is what you can do to prevent an exposure to this bad player.  Protect their breathing zone.  Capture the contaminants and keep these nasty by-products of combustion from getting to your child’s lungs, your too!  Years of working in the health and safety field AND all that we now know is saying loud and clear the best thing is to do is to protect our lungs by providing an escape mask.

Dangerous Hydrogen Sulfide

We Will Not Have Self-contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBAs), but we can have an escape mask that provides a margin of safety so we can get out of harm’s way!

Here Is What I Am Doing

I have found a mask that’s technology is providing safety for many firefighters.  The company has models for forest fire applications that are a huge benefit to them as they don’t have to wear their heavy SCBAs but are still well protected.  The company has designed masks for the professional and civilians, that would be you and I.   Many, many companies have purchased these ‘civilian’ masks for those working in high rise buildings and after the tragic lessons of September 11th, this is an honorable purchase and investment in the health and safety of their employees.  I was quite impressed by this!  The civilian masks are what I have purchased for my home.  Next month I will add two more so that masks are deployed in each bedroom as spelled out in our fire escape plan for our home.

The mask I am recommending is from Xcaper Industries.    See my review.

Dangerous Hydrogen Cyanide

The New Technology of Xcaper Industries gives you back control.

Check these out and let me know how I can help you further develop your fire plan.  This is an important task that once you have it completed will bring you peace of mind.  And THAT is very valuable.

Any questions?  You can contact me here.   Or leave a comment below.

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