pesticide notorious for its use during The Holocaust
Zyklon labels from Dachau concentration camp used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. The first and third panels contain manufacturer information and the brand name. The centre panel reads "Poison Gas! Cyanide preparation to be opened and used only by trained personnel".
Hydrogen cyanide, a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular respiration, was first used as a pesticide in California in the 1880s. Research at Degesch of Germany led to the development of Zyklon (later known as Zyklon A), a pesticide which released hydrogen cyanide upon exposure to water and heat. It was banned after a similar product was used by Germany as a chemical weapon in World War I. In 1922, Degesch was purchased by Degussa, where a team of chemists that included Walter Heerdt [de] and Bruno Tesch developed a method of packaging hydrogen cyanide in sealed canisters along with a cautionary eye irritant and one of several adsorbents such as diatomaceous earth. The new product was also named Zyklon, but it became known as Zyklon B to distinguish it from the earlier version. Uses included delousing clothing and disinfesting ships, warehouses, and trains.
In early 1942, Zyklon B emerged as the preferred killing tool of Nazi Germany for use in extermination camps during the Holocaust. Around a million people were killed using this method, mostly at Auschwitz. Tesch was executed in 1946 for knowingly selling the product to the SS for use on humans. Hydrogen cyanide is now rarely used as a pesticide, but still has industrial applications. Firms in several countries continue to produce Zyklon B under alternative brand names, including Detia-Degesch, the successor to Degesch, who renamed the product Cyanosil in 1974.
Hydrogen cyanide is a poisonous gas that interferes with cellular respiration. Cyanide prevents the cell from producing adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by binding to one of the proteins involved in the electron transport chain. This protein, cytochrome c oxidase, contains several subunits and has ligands containing iron groups. The cyanide component of Zyklon B can bind at one of these iron groups, heme a3, forming a more stabilized compound through metal-to-ligand pi bonding. As a result of the formation of this new iron-cyanide complex, the electrons that would situate themselves on the heme a3 group can no longer do so. Instead, these electrons destabilize the compound; thus, the heme group no longer accept them. Consequently, electron transport is halted, and cells can no longer produce the energy needed to synthesize ATP. In a human weighing 68 kilograms (150 lb), death occurs within two minutes of inhaling 70 mg of hydrogen cyanide.