What Are the Most Dangerous Chemical Substances Known to Man?

Chemistry equips us with valuable knowledge, not only in the form of countless chemical compounds that can be used as medicines to tackle some of the most dreaded diseases in the world, but also in the form of the deadliest chemicals known to mankind.

Aligned Chemical Danger

Chemistry has no dearth of deadly chemicals (Photo Credit : Antoine2K / Shutterstock)

What are the most toxic substances in the world?

Short answer: The list of the most dangerous chemicals known to humans include botulinum toxin, carbon monoxide, chlorine trifluoride, ricin, VX, asbestos, batrachotoxin, cyanide, tabun and strychnine, among quite a few others.

Note: The following list is in no way an exhaustive one; there may be many chemicals out there that were missed while compiling this list. This is just a short compilation of chemicals that are known as some of the most notorious in the world of toxins.

Botulinum toxin A (Botox)

Commercially sold as ‘Botox’, this is arguably the most toxic substance in nature. It is actually a neurotoxic protein that is produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum and other related species.

Cartoon representation of Botulinum toxin. PDB entry 3BTA

3d ribbon model of botulinum toxin A  (Photo Credit:  Wikipedia Commons)

As a neurotoxin, it’s known to adversely impact the communication between nerves and muscle cells, which can cause respiratory failure and even death. You can judge the level of its toxicity by the fact that just 1 gram (0.035 ounces) of this chemical can potentially kill 8.3 million people through injection and 14,000 people if swallowed! (Source)

Amazingly enough, it’s also used to treat excessive sweating and muscle spasms in extremely small doses. Botox (the commercial name of botulinum toxin) is quite a common name in the world of cosmetic surgery, and is frequently used as an anti-aging agent because it paralyses the muscles that cause wrinkles.

botox surgery

Botox treatment paralyses wrinkle-causing muscles

Chlorine Trifluoride

This chemical is an interhalogen compound (meaning it only contains halogen atoms) with the formula ClF-3. Since it’s a much stronger oxidizing agent than oxygen, it’s highly corrosive and is known to start fires even in non-flammable stuff, such as asbestos, tungsten and even sand. (Source)

Owing to such highly reactive properties, this gas was once considered by Nazi Germany to be used in World War II as a weapon of mass destruction.

The flame throwers

Nazi Germany had considered using chlorine trifluoride during World War II. Despite the fact that 30-50 tons of the gas was produced, fortunately, it was never actually used in the war.

It was proposed that the gas would be discharged through flamethrowers to disintegrate enemy bunkers and start fires that couldn’t be extinguished through regular means.

VX

The name itself has an ominous undertone to it. A highly toxic organophosphate (an ester of phosphoric acid), it’s an odorless and tasteless liquid nerve agent that is known to be incredibly destructive to the body’s central nervous system.

Stereo structural formula VX ((S)-phosphinate)

Skeletal formula of the (S) enantiomer of VX.  (Photo Credit : Ben Mills / Wikipedia)

As little as 10 milligrams (0.00035 oz) of this amber-colored liquid can kill a human being through skin contact. It is, in fact, the most poisonous nerve agent ever synthesized by man, and has therefore been banned (as a chemical weapon) by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

Batrachotoxin

This is a highly poisonous cardiotoxic and neurotoxic naturally-occurring chemical found in certain species of frogs, such as the poison dart frog, as well as other creatures like blue-capped ifrit, melyrid beetles and various others. (Source)

Poison Dart Frog

Golden poison dart frog (Photo Credit: Darlene Munro / Shutterstock)

The thing about batrachotoxin is that it opens nerve cell ion channels permanently, which blocks communication and signaling to muscles, effectively paralyzing them. Certain creatures in the wild, like the golden dart frog, use this toxin as a weapon against predators.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, and extremely poisonous gas that’s produced by the incomplete combustion of organic fuels, such as coal, diesel, wood etc. It is one of the primary poisonous gases found in the exhaust fumes of automobiles.

Shiny white Car exhaust

Carbon monoxide is one of the most common toxins released through exhaust fumes.

It severely impacts the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood by binding with the protein hemoglobin. If exposed to an environment with a carbon monoxide concentration of 1.28%, a victim would lose consciousness after 2-3 breaths and die in less than 3 minutes. (Source)

Ricin

Ricin is a naturally-occurring, carbohydrate-binding protein that’s known to do some serious damage to ribosomes (cell protein builders). Found in the castor oil plant, even a very small dose of ricin powder can kill a human being by wreaking havoc on numerous major organs.

Asbestos

Asbestos is not really a ‘single’ substance; it’s actually a set of 6 naturally-occurring silicate minerals, all of which have bunches of fibrous crystals. Thanks to an array of physical properties, like resistance to fire, sound absorption, thermal insulation and decent tensile strength, asbestos was once a popular construction material years ago.

Asbestos

Asbestos comes into existence through these six fibrous mineral ores: chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite-asbestos, actinolite-asbestos, & anthophyllite-asbestos. (Photo Credit : Flickr)

However, the fibrous crystals of asbestos can accumulate in the lungs, causing a deadly respiratory condition called asbestosis. Unlike the other toxins listed here, asbestos can take quite a long time, even years, to kill a person. Even so, it is highly lethal… eventually, which makes it one of the scariest “slow poisons” known to man.

Some other deadly chemicals

Alpha-Amanitin, a toxin found in several species of mushroom (e.g., death cap and destroying angel), causes liver failure upon ingestion.

Amanita phalloides. Piacenza's mountains

(Photo Credit : Archenzo / Wikipedia)

2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, popularly known as Agent Orange, is a colorless solid that’s usually formed as a byproduct of organic synthesis. It was used by the US military under Operation Ranch Hand – a herbicidal warfare program launched during the Vietnam War.

Some other notorious toxins include Arsenic, Strychnine, Tabun, nicotine, Polonium-210, sodium cyanide, Sarin, Tetrodotoxin and digoxin.

All of this is to say that there is a lot of toxic stuff out there, so you should keep your eyes open when dealing with chemicals you don’t recognize.

References:

  1. Botulinum Toxin – Wikipedia
  2. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning – Wikipedia
  3. Chlorine Trifluoride – Wikipedia
  4. Ricin – Wikipedia
  5. Asbestos – Wikipedia
  6. VX (Nerve Agent) – Wikipedia
  7. Batrachotoxin – Wikipedia
  8. Alpha-Amanitin – Wikipedia

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Great article. I will be experiencing a few of these issues as well..