School kids laugh when malodorous body noises break the silence. “Jimmy just gassed,” little Susie giggles. Such odors are associated with the sulfur that comes from eating eggs, although that is by no means the only source. In fact, the odor that comes from eating eggs is thought by high school students to be due to hydrogen sulfide, H₂S. It is generally thought of as a nuisance, and not as a poison.
Another familiar odor is associated with the pit or seed of a peach—bitter almonds. The source of the odor in this case is hydrogen cyanide, HCN. Hydrogen cyanide and its sodium and potassium salts, NaCN and KCN, are often the victim’s cause of death in a television mystery.
But… in “real life”… what is the story? Just how poisonous are the cyanides? And how is it hydrogen sulfide can be considered dangerous? If hydrogen sulfide is dangerous and not as harmless as it seems, why hasn’t this been popularized in detective shows? Which is worse, hydrogen sulfide or hydrogen cyanide?
There are various material safety data sheets and other legalistic documents that may vary from state to state. These give insight into the toxicity of a substance used in the workplace and its detection by the average individual on the basis of odor.
NJ Right-to-Know Fact Sheet for Hydrogen Cyanide
Hydrogen cyanide is listed in the NJ State Department document as having a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 10 ppm (parts per million), whereas its detection by smell typically occurs anywhere from 2 to about 10 ppm.
NJ Right-to-Know Fact Sheet for Hydrogen Sulfide
Hydrogen sulfide, on the other hand, is listed in the NJ State Department document as having a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 20 ppm. Detection of it by smell typically occurs above 0.13 ppm.
Hydrogen Sulfide or Hydrogen Cyanide
The numbers above aren’t rocket science. Hydrogen sulfide is about one-half as toxic as hydrogen cyanide. It is anything but harmless! So why is it seldom mentioned as being almost as dangerous as hydrogen cyanide is? It is because it announces its presence well ahead of the point of severe toxicity.
The potential victim can ordinarily smell hydrogen sulfide and escape to safety long before levels reach a severe level. Not so for hydrogen cyanide! Once it is detected by odor, the individual is already endangered.
- NJ State Health Department: Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet – Hydrogen Cyanide
- Matheson Tri-Gas: Hydrogen Cyanide (Odor Threshold)
- NJ State Health Department: Right to Know Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet – Hydrogen Sulfide
- Matheson Tri-Gas: Hydrogen Sulfide (Odor Threshold)