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November 12, 1982

Cyanide evades some noses, overpowers others

JAMA. 1982;248(18):2211. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03330180005003

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In crimes such as the recent mass murder by use of adulterated Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, the best form of detection is sometimes olfaction. A pathologist or other sleuth with the genetically acquired ability to smell cyanide can literally "sniff out" a death resulting from this quick-acting poison—at least as soon as the body is open and he gets a whiff of the gastric contents or tissues that contain the toxin.

But approximately 40% to 60% of the populace is not so lucky. One pathologist in the Cook County, Ill, Medical Examiner's Office who was involved with the recent investigation of Tylenol poisonings told JAMA MEDICAL NEWS that he could not detect cyanide even if it were life threatening. "At a very high level, I might smell a slightly pungent odor, but nothing that I would necessarily notice," he remarked.

The odor is classically described as resembling the smell of bitter