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Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Cyanide poison hard to detect

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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Cyanide poisoning symptoms
• Faint almond body odor
• Dizziness
• Convulsions
• Foaming at the mouth
• Complete organ shutdown

Cyanide poisoning treatment
• Ventilator/oxygen treatment
• Drug treatment
• Stomach pumping

Source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry

(CNN) -- A Maryland teenager is facing first-degree murder charges for allegedly spiking his friend's drink with poison and killing him.

Police said Ryan Furlough, 18, laced the soda of Benjamin Vassiliev, 17, with cyanide as they played video games in Furlough's basement in suburban Baltimore.

CNN Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke Friday to CNN Anchor Bill Hemmer about cyanide poison, the effects on a human and how accessible it is to the public.

HEMMER: I know you're a doctor, but I know you've also looked into the possibility of purchasing cyanide online. How easy or how tough is it?

GUPTA: You know, it's remarkably easy to purchase cyanide online as well as several other highly toxic substances. These are substances you can buy on chemical Web sites, other Web sites, all sorts of things.

In fact, we had some producers right here in the newsroom just for our own little internal test to try and do it themselves. ... They actually clicked on potassium cyanide. ... It tells you it's toxic. [It shows a] skull and crossbones. And then it gives you a price. I think this one was about $110. And you can actually click it, purchase it and have it sent to your home.

Potassium cyanide, a substance that people have known for a long time to be very toxic, Bill. So you can just see, we did it ourselves. You can see how easy it is to buy cyanide, along with several other toxic substances.

HEMMER: Yes, and what about -- cyanide is actually found in a lot of products that people probably don't even consider.


HEMMER: Tell us about that.

GUPTA: That's right, yes. We actually tried to look and see where else you could find cyanide, other places you might find it. We have a list, I think, of some various places where cyanide is actually found and used. Common places, pesticides, metal strippers, metal-plating solutions.

You can buy that sort of stuff at, you know, hardware stores, hobby shops, electronics stores, things like that. The most remarkable thing, Bill, as you know, is you don't need an ID to buy any of that. A teenager, certainly a kid could go in there and buy any of that stuff and take it home. And there you would have quite a bit of cyanide there as well.

HEMMER: Yes, take us through quickly the symptoms this individual experienced and perhaps others experience. And then after that, I want you to explain to us why it took five days in this case for this person essentially to die.

GUPTA: OK, right. Well, you know, cyanide is something that people have studied for a long time. We've heard about it with the Tylenol poisonings about 20 years ago, the Jim Jones poisonings back in 1978. Basically what happens when someone gets a cyanide poisoning is that it actually interferes with all of the body's ability to get oxygen. So none of the cells in the body are getting any oxygen.

[The] following are some of the symptoms that actually occur when that happens; all sorts of different things will happen.

Patients will first of all [notice] there'll be this faint almond smell. And that's sort of important because that's probably the only sort of distinguishing characteristic of cyanide. It's hard to taste otherwise. It's hard to smell otherwise besides the faint almond. People feel dizzy perhaps initially -- convulsions/seizures, foaming at the mouth. That's sort of what people typically think of when they think of a cyanide poisoning. And finally complete organ shutdown and death.

As far as this particular case -- five days -- that is probably a bit unusual. Usually cyanide will actually kill much more quickly than that. We're talking about hours here.

Here's what happens when someone goes to the hospital: They're going to actually try and support that person by putting them on a ventilator and trying to give them the oxygen back. They're probably going to try a medication to try and get the body to rid itself of cyanide. Sometimes that works well, sometimes not as well. And finally pump the stomach just for obvious reasons. [If] there's cyanide in the stomach, they've got to pump it.

But when a person comes into the hospital with cyanide poisoning, that's pretty unusual. First they've got to figure out that's what it is and then do these things. Five days is a little bit of a long time. Probably what happened in this boy's case is that his organs just gradually shut down, and he subsequently died with really no recourse for doctors or the hospital.

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