The 10 Most Dangerous Chemicals Known to Man
The world around us is made up of chemicals. We eat, drink, breathe and live in them every single day of our lives and mostly they’re harmless. They facilitate life. They allow our body to function. They make us feel better when we’re sick. However, that doesn’t mean that dangerous chemicals don’t exist. There are poisonous ones, cancer-causing ones, corrosive ones, and volatile ones. There are ones that smell so bad that they make you hurl your guts up and there are even ones that can set concrete on fire. This article lists ten of the most dangerous chemical substances known to man and will make you eternally grateful that you didn’t become a chemist.
10. Ethylene Glycol
It’s highly likely that you have a bottle of this first chemical lying around somewhere in your garage. Ethylene glycol, also known as anti-freeze, is a common household chemical used as a coolant in cars. However, it’s also a dangerous poison. In the body it’s converted into glycolaldehyde by the same enzyme that breaks down the alcohol you’d find in beer or wine. Once this occurs the glycolaldehyde is oxidised into a substance called glycolic acid, which is about as nasty as it sounds. The acid disrupts the body’s delicate pH balance and also has a cytotoxic effect, meaning that it kills cells. The kidneys and central nervous system are the primary systems that are damaged by antifreeze. Ethylene glycol didn’t make this list just for its poisonous effects, however. The dangerous chemical has a notoriously sweet taste, meaning that children, pets and even unwitting adults have been known to guzzle the tasty liquid and then suffer the negative side effects. A sweet-faced killed indeed.
Aside from having a killer name, 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or just dioxin, is a highly toxic compound that can be produced as a by-product of incomplete combustion (combustion without enough oxygen present). The chemical causes lesions on the body known as chloracne and damages fatty organs like the liver, spleen and intestines. This is because dioxin is a fat-soluble molecule and thus has a nasty tendency to accumulate in the body’s fatty tissues and then stick around. One of the scariest things about this chemical is that we don’t really know how it works or why it has such severe effects, which means that treatment for dioxin poisoning is a bit of a guessing game.
Batrachotoxin, which is found on the skin of certain frogs native to South America, is one of the most potent poisons known to man. It takes just 2 micrograms per kilogram to kill someone, which means that a fully grown man could be killed by a dose no bigger than few grains of salt. It’s a neurotoxin, which means that it exerts its effect by stopping neurones from being able to send electrical messages to one and other, causing paralysis and eventually death. Scary stuff.
7. Potassium Cyanide
Potassium Cyanide is a salt, but it’s about as far from the kind that you use to season your fries as it’s possible to be. It’s incredibly toxic and has gained notoriety for being the choice ingredient in suicide pills for spies and soldiers around the world. The nicest thing that can be said about it is that it offers a fast death. It inhibits cellular respiration, the process by which cells make energy, by inhibiting an enzyme that’s essential in ATP production. ATP is the primary energy currency of the body, and the ability to make it is key to, well, living. Within a few minutes of consuming potasisum cyanide victims fall unconscious and then suffer brain death. Yikes.
Thioacetone isn’t poisonous. It isn’t corrosive, explosive or even particularly volatile. However, it has one special property that makes it one of the most dangerous chemicals on earth. It’s smell. The stench of thioacetone has been described as "fearful" and causes any in the vicinity to vomit, faint or flee with horror. To get an understanding of just how terrible this smell is, a story is warranted. In 1889 a group of scientists in the German town of Freiburg were working on a related compound and accidentally managed to synthesis some thioacetone. The stench was able to be detected from half a kilometre away and triggered an evacuation of the entire town as people began vomiting uncontrollably. In sum, thioacetone won’t kill you, but it’ll probably make you wish you were dead.
5. Dimethyl Mercury
Dimethyl mercury is a simple little molecule, consisting of a central mercury atom bonded to two methyl (CH3) groups. The toxic effects of mercury are known to pretty much everyone, but few are aware that the liquid metal on its own is actually fairly harmless. It can’t bind to any tissues in the body on its own and therefore can’t be absorbed. However, the addition of the two methyl groups in dimethyl mercury means that the compound can be readily absorbed into the blood and transported all around the body, where it can exert its toxic effect. The true dangers of working with dimethyl mercury came to light in 1996, when chemist Karen Wetterhahn accidentally spilled two drops of the chemical on her glove while working in the lab. Assuming that the latex would prevent the chemical from coming into contact with her skin, she didn’t fret. After a few months, however, she began to exhibit signs of cognitive impairment. Slurred speech, difficulty thinking and fatigue soon gave way to a coma, which after five months finally gave way to death.
More on the story of Karen Wetterhahn:
4. Fluoroantimonic Acid
Fluoroantimonic acid is the strongest acid in the world. Ever head of sulphuric acid? Well, it’s about ten quadrillion times stronger than that. The compound can eat through plastic and glass and could melt the skin from your bones and still be hungry for more. The only way that it can be stored is in teflon containers, which are resistant to its corrosive effects. When studying it, scientists aren’t even able to use normal glass beakers unless they dilute it thousands of times. What’s more, fluoroantimonic acid also reacts violently with water. Fun.
3. Azidoazide Azide
Azidoazide Azide is the most volatile, explosive compound currently know to man. It’s comprised of 14 nitrogens loosely bound in a high energy confirmation. When a molecule is in a high energy conformation it seeks to move down to a lower energy state; a transition which releases energy. Azidoazide azide is an extreme case of this phenomenon, in which its high energy conformation is so unstable that pretty much anything can make it explode. The slightest pressure or friction, small temperature fluctuations and even exposure to light can cause it to go boom. In fact, it’s so volatile that the normal instruments used to measure how unstable a substance is can’t be used. In other words, it’s too explosive to measure how explosive it is. Eeek.
2. Chlorine Trifluoride
Chlorine Trifluoride, also known as substance N, was discovered by Nazi scientists during the second world war. The Nazi Party initially intended to have their soldiers use it to melt through Allied bunkers, but after years of research determined that it was just too unstable. That’s right, this chemical was too destructive for the Nazis. It’s extremely volatile and will explosively react with just about anything. It’s been known to set fire to glass, sand, rust and, of course, people. The United States briefly tinkered with chlorine trifluoride and attempted to transport a tonne of it in a specialised tanker. This turned out to be a really, really bad move. The tanker crashed and the substance spilled out onto the concrete floor of a warehouse and set fire to it. It ate through through the concrete completely, along with a good few feet of the dirt and gravel beneath. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want this stuff within a thousand miles of me.
1. Dimethyl Cadmium
Even worse that dimethyl mercury, dimethyl cadmium is considered by most chemists to be the most toxic chemical known to man. Because cadmium is lighter than mercury the organic compound is more volatile. It absorbs instantly into the bloodstream and rips apart the organs that need the highest supply of blood, including two little body parts that you might have heard of called the heart and lungs. If, by some miracle, a person manages to survive the initial exposure the danger certainly isn’t over. Dimethyl cadmium is highly carcinogenic, meaning that it causes cancer. If that isn’t bad enough, it also explodes in water and decomposes into dimethyl calcium peroxide, which is highly explosive. In sum, it’s a volatile, poisonous, cancer-causing, explosive and vicious little molecule that can easily be called the most dangerous chemical known to man. It’s no wonder, really, that the majority of the world’s chemists refuse to work with it.
And there we have it; ten of the most toxic, volatile, corrosive, explosive and all-round dangerous chemicals known to man. The bright side is that you’ll probably never get within a hundred miles of most of these chemicals. However, it’s important to remember that in the scheme of human existence, chemistry is still a fairly young discipline. There’s no telling what other terrifying substances scientists will discover in the coming years. Isn’t that exciting?!
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© 2018 K S Lane