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Cyanide in freshwater

Cyanide occurring in freshwater


Types of freshwater pollution

Toxicity response

Acids & alkalis






Organic pollution



The term cyanide refers to a singularly charged anion consisting of one carbon atom and one nitrogen atom joined with a triple bond, CN-. The most toxic form of cyanide is free cyanide, which includes the cyanide anion itself and hydrogen cyanide, HCN, either in a gaseous or aqueous state. One teaspoon of a 2% cyanide solution can kill a person.
At a pH of 9.3 - 9.5, CN- and HCN are in equilibrium, with equal amounts of each present. At a pH of 11, over 99% of the cyanide remains in solution as CN-, while at pH 7, over 99% of the cyanide will exist as HCN. Although HCN is highly soluble in water, its solubility decreases with increased temperature and under highly saline conditions. Both HCN gas and liquid are colorless and have the odor of bitter almonds, although not all individuals can detect the odor.

Cyanide is frequently used in a mining technology called cyanide heap leaching. It is a cheap way to extract gold from its ore. Goldminers spray a cyanide solution (which reacts with gold) into huge open-air piles of crushed ore. They then collect the solution in leach beds and overflow ponds, recirculate it a number of times, and extract gold from it. (Cyanidation)
A problem with this technology is that cyanide is extremely toxic to birds and mammals drawn to cyanide solution collection ponds as a source of water. These ponds also can leak or overflow, posing threats to underground drinking water supplies and wildlife in lakes and streams. Because cyanide breaks down heavy metals, it can form complexes with other metals or chemicals, which can be as toxic as cyanide itself. Especially fish and aquatic invertebrates are particularly sensitive to cyanide exposure. It blocks the absorption of oxygen by cells and causes the species to suffocate. Aquatic lifes are killed by cyanide concentrations in the microgram per liter (part per billion) range, whereas bird and mammal deaths result from cyanide concentrations in the milligram per liter (part per million) range. Concentrations of free cyanide in the aquatic environment ranging from 5.0 to 7.2 micrograms per liter reduce swimming performance and inhibit reproduction in many species of fish. Other adverse effects include delayed mortality, pathology, susceptibility to predation, disrupted respiration, osmoregulatory disturbances and altered growth patterns. Concentrations of 20 to 76 micrograms per liter free cyanide cause the death of many species, and concentrations in over 200 micrograms per liter are rapidly toxic to most species of fish. Invertebrates experience adverse nonlethal effects at 18 to 43 micrograms per liter free cyanide, and lethal effects at 30 to 100 micrograms per liter. Chronic cyanide exposure may affect reproduction, physiology, and levels of activity of many fish species, and may render the fishery resource non-viable. The sensitivity of aquatic organisms to cyanide is highly species specific, and is also affected by water pH, temperature and oxygen content, as well as the life stage and condition of the organism.
Algae and macrophytes can tolerate much higher environmental concentrations of free cyanide than fish and invertebrates, and do not exhibit adverse effects until 160 micrograms per liter or more. Aquatic plants are unaffected by cyanide at concentrations that are lethal to most species of freshwater fish and invertebrates.

Under aerobic conditions, microbial activity can degrade cyanide to ammonia, which then oxidizes to nitrate. This process has been shown effective with cyanide concentrations of up to 200 parts per million. Although biodegradation also occurs under anaerobic conditions, cyanide concentrations greater than 2 parts per million are toxic to these microorganisms.

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