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The death of Spaniard Ramon Sampedro in 1998 and the subsequent award-winning film The Sea Inside focused attention on the use of sodium cyanide as an effective means by which a seriously ill person can put an end to their suffering.
Sampedro, a quadriplegic since a diving accident at age 26, ended his life by drinking a glass of water in which soluble potassium cyanide (KCN) had been dissolved. He died quickly, and peacefully. Many people who have seen The Sea Inside have asked why these cyanide salts are not more frequently used to provide a peaceful death. In this Chapter we explain some of the difficulties involved in using cyanide and provide some answers.
Background to Cyanide
In 1814, the French chemist, Joseph Gay Lussac, isolated and given the name ‘cyanogen’ to the carbon-nitrogen (CN) ‘radical’ that is common to a number of chemical substances. A subsequent name, ‘the blue generator’, referred to the place of the CN radical in chemicals that were used as blue dyes. The Prussian Blue of blueprints (iron ferro cyanide) is perhaps the best known. In many of these compounds, the CN radical is so tightly bound that the substances are relatively non-toxic.