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Understanding the Most Hazardous Volatile Organic Compounds

In the realm of dangerous materials, VOCs pose significant risks to both human health and the environment. Read on to gain an in-depth understanding of three of the most hazardous volatile organic compounds—ethylene glycol, sodium cyanide, and strychnine—as we shed light on their applications, common symptoms of toxic exposure, and the reasons behind their perilous nature.

Ethylene Glycol

Ethylene glycol, a colorless and odorless liquid, is commonly used as an antifreeze agent in the automotive industry, as well as in the manufacturing of polyester fibers, resins, and other industrial products. It can also be found in some hydraulic fluids, solvents, and even in certain household products like de-icers and liquid detergents. Exposure to ethylene glycol can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact, with workers in refineries, manufacturing plants, and chemical processing facilities being at a higher risk.

Toxic exposure to ethylene glycol can lead to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, and even unconsciousness. In severe cases, it can result in kidney failure, brain damage, or death. The danger of ethylene glycol lies in its ability to rapidly metabolize into toxic by-products within the body, causing metabolic acidosis and acute renal failure.

Sodium Cyanide

Sodium cyanide is a highly toxic, white crystalline compound that is widely used in various industries, including mining, electroplating, and chemical synthesis. In the gold mining industry, sodium cyanide is employed for extracting gold from ore. In contrast, the electroplating industry uses the substance to plate metals like silver and gold onto other surfaces. Additionally, sodium cyanide serves as a precursor in producing several organic chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Exposure to sodium cyanide can occur through inhalation, ingestion, or skin contact, and even small amounts can be lethal. Symptoms of toxic exposure may include dizziness, headache, rapid breathing, nausea, vomiting, and seizures. In severe cases, it can lead to respiratory failure, coma, and death. Sodium cyanide is extremely dangerous due to its high toxicity and rapid absorption into the body. Once absorbed, it inhibits cellular respiration by binding to cytochrome oxidase, ultimately leading to cell death and severe systemic effects.


Strychnine is a highly toxic, colorless, bitter-tasting alkaloid that is derived from the seeds of the strychnos nux-vomica tree. Historically used as a pesticide to control rodents and other pests, strychnine has also been employed in the medical field as a stimulant for the central nervous system. Today, its use is heavily restricted due to its high toxicity and potential for abuse.

Toxic exposure to strychnine can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact. Common symptoms include muscle stiffness, spasms, convulsions, difficulty breathing, and extreme sensitivity to touch. In severe cases, strychnine poisoning can result in seizures, respiratory failure, and death. The danger associated with strychnine lies in its ability to disrupt normal nerve function by blocking the inhibitory neurotransmitter glycine, causing overstimulation of the central nervous system.

By understanding more about the most hazardous volatile organic compounds, you can ensure better working conditions for yourself and your peers, especially if you work in highly industrial and challenging environments. Thankfully, tools like properly implemented LDAR programs can benefit various industries by reducing fugitive emissions of potentially toxic VOCs.

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Written by Logan Voss

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