Analox at the Movies: Cyanide Confusion in James Bond
We previously explored the gas inaccuracies in the sci-fi film Prometheus, and now we’re back looking at the long running spy series James Bond.
The James Bond films have always been a bit over the top, with flashy gadgets and cars, and villainous plots which don’t always seem believable, but we still enjoy them.
One object that has been referenced in several Bond films is cyanide capsules. All 00 agents are issued these for use in the event of capture by the enemy, as the release of cyanide in their body will kill them in minutes, however in Die Another Day, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond claims he threw it away years before he got captured.
Cyanide capsules do exist and they usually contain one of the two cyanide salts, potassium cyanide (KCN) or sodium cyanide (NaCN).
During World War II, spies carried the L-pill (lethal pill), which was a small glass capsule covered in brown rubber and filled with a concentrated solution of potassium cyanide.
It could be carried in the mouth shaped as a false tooth, and a spy could bite down on the pill to crush the capsule and release the fast-acting poison.
The International Spy Museum in Washington DC even displays eyeglasses that contained an L-pill compartment. To release the poison, the spy would simply need to chew on the arm of the glasses where the poisonous pellet was hidden.
The cyanide pill is mentioned in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall by the villain Raoul Silva, a fictional cyber-terrorist and former Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) operative.
Silva reveals that he was captured and tortured for five months in Hong Kong and during that time he attempted to take his own life with a cyanide capsule that was implanted in one of his molars. He said: “It… burned all my insides, but I didn’t die. Life clung to me like a disease.”
However Silva states that the capsule contained hydrogen cyanide (HCN) before removing his prosthetic dentures to show the effects of the cyanide which had corroded his jaw, causing his cheek to sink and lose most of his teeth.
This however is wrong.
Hydrogen cyanide is a poisonous gas that prevents the cells of the body from using oxygen properly, leading to oxygen deprivation.
Early symptoms of inhaling hydrogen cyanide include giddiness, headaches, vertigo and respiratory difficulty.
If a person is exposed to a high concentration of over 2000ppm in the air, this will cause a coma with seizures, apnea, and cardiac arrest, with death following shortly afterwards.
Hydrogen cyanide can also be found in liquid form called Prussic Acid or hydrocyanic acid.
I believe this was the type of cyanide the writers for Skyfall thought was suitable to go into the capsule, as some acids can be corrosive.
But hydrocyanic acid is actually less acidic than citric acids including oranges and lemons, and acetic acids such as vinegar.
So despite the corrosion giving Silva distinguishing features to make him a more memorable Bond villain, it wouldn’t actually happen.