Cyanide and Mercury: The Chemistry of S-Town

There was a great man [who] once said that the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle. It is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction it will go back.
— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

I have experienced only two forms of great podcasts. The first is the consistent great content that spends more time with you than your close friends. The podcast is there for you, week after week, providing you with great content.

The second form of great podcasts is fleeting, but powerful. Because there are no consistent updates, the original content has to be so great to keep people talking about it even after all of the episodes have aired. S-Town is one of the best examples of this I have ever seen.

With the powerhouse names of "This American Life" and "Serial" behind it, I knew S-Town was going to be good. But it wasn't until I finished it that I realized the true depth of its greatness.

If you have not listened to it, two things:

  1. Stop reading this, go here (or to your podcast app), and start listening. Thank me after you have finished episode 7
  2. Brian Reed, a reporter for NPR's "This American Life," receives an e-mail from a man named John from self proclaimed "shit town Alabama." In the e-mail John talks about "something fishy" going on, and how Brian can help him get to the bottom of a murder that the local police is covering up.

I won't spoil the story here, but by the end of the series there were some deep discussions on mercury and cyanide. This will be a bit more morbid than my usual blogs, but I just had to know: what does cyanide and mercury do to the body?

Pouring mercury. Photo retrieved from

Pouring mercury. Photo retrieved from


Known by its chemistry friends as Hg, mercury comes in three forms. Elemental, which we are most familiar with, is a metal that has a melting point below room temperature. As in the picture above, it becomes a liquid metal that students world wide used to play with in introductory chemistry classes. The other two forms are mercury salts (when it is bonded to chlorine) and organic mercury (when it is bonded to carbon).

Now holding mercury in your hand once won't kill you. As with most things in life, it is the amount of it not the sheer existence. Our bodies every day deal with thousands of toxins and have even more ways of getting rid of them. So a little bit, even if ingested, wouldn't be too bad (we are talking very, very small amounts). But consistent exposure causes your body to have to deal with more and more mercury, diverting resources from other toxins or letting mercury create more toxins. This is accelerated in the brain, where there is a ton of oxygen. With enough mercury overtime the brain starts being torn apart.

But it can be a slow and long process. As shown in S-Town through inhaling mercury vapor once or twice a year, mercury can have serious impacts on mental health. This slow killer can have irreversible effects and even cause someone to commit suicide with a much faster killer; cyanide. 

Photo retrieved from

Photo retrieved from

Unlike mercury, cyanide is not a pure element you can find on the periodic table. It is the bond between carbon and nitrogen, and can come in many, many forms; potassium cyanide (KaCN)  sodium cyanide (NaCN), for example.

As the site ThoughCo explains.

In a nutshell, cyanide prevents cells from using oxygen to make energy molecules.

The cyanide ion, CN-, binds to the iron atom in cytochrome C oxidase in the mitochondria of cells. It acts as an irreversible enzyme inhibitor, preventing cytochrome C oxidase from doing its job, which is to transport electrons to oxygen in the electron transport chain of aerobic cellular respiration.

Without the ability to use oxygen, mitochondria can’t produce the energy carrier adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Tissues that require this form of energy, such as heart muscle cells and nerve cells, quickly expend all their energy and start to die. When a large enough number of critical cells die, you die.
— ThoughCo

So just like mercury, the body can deal with very, very small amounts. Some cells might die, but the body would be healthy. But too much of it (like half a gram) at a time can make someone go unconscious in seconds, and dead in minutes. That's why cyanide pills will kill quickly, and a mercury pill would just make you feel super sick for many, many days while your body tries to detoxify itself.

Knowing a little more about these chemicals gives me new nuance to the series S-Town. Not only were some characters dealing with the literal mercury and cyanide, but the figurative forms as well. Some things will kill you quick, like a neighbor shooting you with a shotgun. But some things need years to kill someone; like the pressure of being homosexual in a community that will not allow for that self-expression.