A common chemical associated with smoke inhalation and respiratory failure is hydrogen cyanide.  It is typically produced from the combustion of polyurethane (foams), wool, silk, and paper, all of which are commonly found in homes.  Concentrations as low as 45-55 parts per million can cause death in less than an hour, while concentrations of more than 280 parts per million cause death almost instantly.

Fires and explosions are often caused by carelessness, or even intentional disregard of the safety of others. If you have cyanide poisoning from smoke inhalation, you need a lawyer who has handled case like yours.

Fred Pritzker
Attorney Fred Pritzker: 1-888-377-8900 (toll free)

Cyanide kills cells. When smoke containing this deadly chemical is breathed in duing a fire or after an explosion, it permeates cells in the lining of the airways and lungs, in the heart and throughout the central nervous system, traveling to these areas in the blood stream. It then binds an enzyme in cell tissue called cytochrome c oxidase and renders it inactive, which prevents oxidative phosphorylation (the oxidation of nutrients), meaning cells are not able to produce the energy needed to live, so they die.  This can cause respiratory distress, heart damage and brain damage. Respiratory distress can happen when dead tissue in the lining of the trachea or a bronchial tube falls into the airway, obstructing the flow of oxygen.

Cyanide poisoning can be fatal, particularly when combined with other chemicals in the smoke, like carbon monoxide. Some medical professionals believe it only contributes to the severity of the injuries.

Cyanide Poisoning Symptoms

The following are symptoms are in order of increasing levels of the chemical:

  • Anxiety, confusion, unsteadiness, rapid breathing, flushing
  • Headache, palpitations (awareness of heart beat), shortness of breath, altered consciousness, atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm), premature heart beat
  • Ataxia (unsteady motion due to loss of muscle control), convulsions, slowed heart rate, shallow breathing, coma
  • Apnea (long pauses in breathing), cardiovascular collapse (circulatory failure), asystole (no heart beat), and death.


To treat cyanide poisoning, a medical professional may use amyl nitrate or sodium nitrate.  These chemical compounds convert ferrous iron in hemoglobin subunits to ferric iron.  The ferric iron binds to cyanide, which is then converted to thiocyanate, a harmless byproduct. In other words, the chemical structure is changed by the ferric iron.

To contact an attorney at Pritzker Hageman, P.A. about your burn case, please call 1-888-377-8900 (toll free) or submit our free case consultation form.

Carrougher, Gretchern J. (1998).  Burn Care and Therapy.  St. Louis:  Mosby Inc.