Deadly Cyanide Restricted, But It's Not Really Hard To Get

It only takes a pinch of cyanide - maybe less - to kill. And it's as potent a poison added to a cold capsule as it is dropped on bare skin.

The state adopted laws to keep track of people who were buying cyanide after the last capsule-tampering scare. But it doesn't take much cyanide to kill, and the poison isn't hard to obtain.

Cyanide is used in all sorts of everyday processes from cleaning, refining and hardening metals to art printing, cement-making, disinfecting, photoengraving, metal-plating, soldering and tanning leather. It's used in medical tests and to extract gold and silver from ore.

The rules of the state Pharmacy Board were changed in 1986 to make it more difficult to buy over-the-counter capsules after two South King County people, Bruce Nickell and Sue Snow, died from taking cyanide-laced capsules. Nickell's widow, Stella, later was convicted of the deaths.

The following year, the Legislature tightened up the law regarding the sale of cyanide, arsenic and strychnine - three common but deadly poisons.

Before the Nickell case, cyanide was easy to come by. Suicidal or murderous workers could, and sometimes did, steal it in minute amounts from their employers. Anyone could buy it in a feed store.

The new tampering rules adopted after the Nickell case required packages of non-prescription capsules to have at least two tamper-proof features. Glued flaps, cellophane wrappers with overlapping ends and cellulose shrink-wrapped seals were no longer enough.

And there's a poison-control law now requiring anyone who sells cyanide, arsenic and strychnine to register the date and hour of the sale, the name and home address of the purchaser, the kind and quantity of poison sold and the reason the poison was being bought. Buyers must furnish photo identification. Distributors must be licensed.

There are no cyanide manufacturers in Washington, and only seven distributors are licensed by the state to sell the three poisons: All-World Scientific of Lynnwood; Baxter Healthcare Corp. of Redmond; Emerald City Chemical Inc., and VWR Scientific of Seattle; and Fisher Scientific Co. and Van Waters & Rogers Inc., both of Kent., and Orco Inc., of Eugene, Ore.

The changes in the law were long overdue. Washington had poison-control laws since 1904 - pharmacists had to maintain registers of all poisons bought and sold. But the law was struck in 1981, after it got cumbersome to register all the pesticides and fertilizers being used, said Donald Williams, executive director of the Pharmacy Board.

``It got crazy,'' said Williams. ``In 1981, pharmacists were still recording iodine because it had that little skull and crossbones on the bottle, whereas there were things out there that would kill instantly, and they didn't have to be signed for.''