Of good old Salt and deadly Cyanide!
Columns, Over A Cup of Evening Tea

Of good old Salt and deadly Cyanide!

December 3, 2023

By Dr. K. Javeed Nayeem, MD

Consequent upon the recent publication of a disturbing report in some newspapers, naturally followed by their rapid circulation, in the now hair-trigger social media, a wave of needless panic seems to be spreading in our society.

A good many of you too may have read these reports, which if left unchecked, may spread like wildfire, because that is the exact frenzy that social media is capable of generating these days. And dowsing this impending wildfire before it catches the wind, is exactly what I am attempting to do through this article.

Since I am not into the present-day pastime of exchanging garbage with my friends and relatives through the notorious net, my attention was drawn to these reports only by some of my patients who came to me in great panic. These certainly very irresponsible reports, without any scientific backing whatsoever, have said that good old common salt, of Indian origin, has been found by an analytical lab in the United States, to contain dangerous levels of the chemical, Potassium Ferrocyanide, as a contaminant or even adulterant.

They have been attributed to some very obviously dubious sources, lacking even the minimum authenticity that is required to back them and they very noticeably smack of much mala-fide intent and vested interests. That is the reason I do not wish to give them more attention or publicity which they crave, by mentioning them  here by their names.

They have even gone on to say that this chemical is a deadly poison, capable of causing much harm to human beings, including causing cancer.

Nothing could be farther from the truth than this. Firstly, although Potassium Ferrocyanide may indeed be present in the salt that we use every day, it is not an adulterant. Traces of this chemical compound are very often present in natural edible common salt, especially the variety that is obtained from salt mines.

Even in the salt that is obtained by the evaporation of sea water, in salt pans and which is later powdered and converted to table-salt, legally permissible amounts of Potassium Ferrocyanide are added as an anti-caking agent to keep the product free-flowing and easy to use. This is a practice that is now common and widespread across the world.

What most of us may not know is the fact that salt is extremely hygroscopic, which means that it attracts moisture very quickly and tends to form clumps. That is why, all of us who use table-salt, are well aware of how we keep tapping the salt shaker on our dining tables in irritation if not frustration, whenever the salt fails to flow out easily! This is exactly the problem that the tiny amount of added Potassium Ferrocyanide prevents.

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Now, coming to the claim that Potassium Ferrocyanide is a deadly poison, let me assure you all that it is not. This dishonour is only the result of it being similar in name to Potassium Cyanide, which in fact is one of the most infamous and deadly poisons in the world! We should understand that not all Cyanides are poisonous.

There are a good many Cyanide compounds that find use in many industrial processes. Until digital photography became the norm, in the just gone-by era of film photography, Potassium Ferricyanide, another cyanide salt, was used widely, to convert run-of-the-mill black and white photographs into the rich brown Sepia prints that were the hallmark of the golden era of formal portraiture.

Even today, looking at such prints evokes in me the nostalgia of the magic I used to myself perform in my make-shift dark-room, until two decades ago, as a hobbyist photographer. That was the time when playing with strong-smelling photographic chemicals was just as enjoyable as toying with my cameras and lenses!

Now, it is worthwhile to know that in medical toxicology, which is the study of poisons, there is what is called a ‘fatal dose’ for every substance, poisonous or non-poisonous. This is the dose that can kill a person. The most reassuring bit of information is that the fatal dose of Potassium Ferrocyanide is exactly equal to the fatal dose of common salt, if indeed a person manages to consume enough salt, in one go, to kill oneself. This is an impossible occurrence because we all know very well that even the greatest salt-lovers among us, can never consume it in such impossible quantities!

So, every one of you can now rest assured that the salt that we are consuming in our daily lives, is worth its salt and therefore completely harmless to us, provided we keep in mind the fact that salt should be consumed in moderation to keep ourselves healthy.

Now, will someone be kind enough and pass me the salt please!

A picture-perfect Sunday!

The Sunday that went by last week was what I can call a near-perfect Sunday for me. It started off with me spending a good part of the morning with my good-old college-mates, reminiscing about the good- old-days, thanks to the Annual General Body Meeting of the Alumni Association of my Alma-mater, The St. Philomena’s College.  After that, it was a leisurely lunch at home, in the company of some very close, Biryani-loving relatives, who were our guests for the day.

Ashvini Ranjan, the Lensman, through My Lens!

I had to actually try very hard to lift myself up from the comfort of my coach and the temptation to stay put there, only because I had to catch up with an exhibition of photographs, I had to visit, before it was time for it to be wound up.

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On my way to the show, near the Palace, much to my joy, I espied Mohiyuddin, an itinerant roasted peanut seller, whom I keep bumping into from time to time. My meeting him is always a joyous occasion, not only for me but for him too. That is because, hot, roasted peanuts are my anytime hot favourite snack and bumping into me always means guaranteed business for him!

Munching on the nuts, which this time clearly seemed to be having a little more salt than what was good for my health, which is what made them tastier than usual, I just managed to make it to my destination before it was closing time.

The exhibition, ‘In True Colours’ at the Wadiyar Centre For Architecture, was of about sixty photographs, taken by my long-standing friend Ashvini Ranjan, a well-known person in the city because of his being a Founder-Trustee of ‘Pratham,’ an NGO that works for the improvement of the quality of education for rural school children.

This was an exhibition of photographs he had taken, as a hobbyist photographer like me, and it was a real treat, both to the eyes and the soul. I say this because this time too, as he always does with his art, he had managed to capture the soul element in his subjects.

This was his second such exhibition after a long hiatus of a full decade. I had written a full article about my impressions of his first show that was also no less impressive.

I had then said that I could see the touch of his guru and guide, the great photo-journalist of our city, T.S. Satyan, in his work and I can only say the same about what I saw this time too.

Two of the prints from his exhibition which he gifted me last Sunday, proudly adorn my home now!

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