The federal government, which controls the manufacture, importation, distribution and sale of such dangerous items as guns, explosives, radioactive materials and drugs, does little to keep track of the potent poison cyanide and nothing to control its availability for sale to the public.
Several agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Transportation Department, have some jurisdiction over the poison, which was apparently stuffed into Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules, killing seven people in the Chicago area in the last six days.
Most of the existing regulations, however, are geared to control the accidental release of the poison into the water or the atmosphere, either when the substance is being used in the manufacturing process, used in pesticide products or disposed of in waste dumps.
There are also rules designed to identify who has possession of the chemical when it is being transported from a manufacturer to a user, but once the cyanide arrives at its destination, those rules are no longer applicable.
Officials at several federal agencies yesterday cited two arguments against attempting further regulation of cyanide and other poisons, like arsenic, that are frequently used in the industrial process. First, it is relatively easy for someone with a knowledge of chemistry to manufacture cyanide from a group of benign components. Second, it would be a mammoth job to regulate all available poisons.
"Gasoline and a lot of other products are poisons and they're not regulated either," said Bill Grigg, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration. "There are so many potential poisons in the world, natural as well as manufactured, that if we decided they all needed to be regulated closely it would be a monumental task."
The most obvious existing authority for such regulation would be the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which was designed as a catch-all piece of legislation giving EPA authority to regulate the use and distribution of dangerous substances not already controlled by existing legislation. Thus far, four substances have been regulated under TOSCA: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once widely used in electrical generators; asbestos; chlorinated fluorocarbons, or aerosol propellants, and dioxin wastes resulting from different organic chemical processes.
"There's certainly no way under the Toxic Substances Control Act to keep track of individual possessions of a poison," said Susan Vogt, special assistant to the EPA's assistant administrator for toxic substances. "You would have to control the sale of the substance in all instances."
Cyanide is also subject to regulation by EPA under the Pesticide Control Act and by the Materials Transportation Bureau of the Transportation Department. It is not classified as a drug, a food or a cosmetic, so is not regulated by the FDA.
According to John Slavick, spokesman for the Chemical Manufacturers' Association, there is no "cradle-to-grave" regulation of cyanide, as there is of radioactive materials, because "the substances are so bad and they have been recognized as being so bad that the industry procedures in place have been proven through the course of time. If you fool around with this stuff you're going to be dead."
Cyanide can occur in both gaseous and crystal forms. The most frequently used forms of the substance are sodium cyanide and potassium cyanide, the kind discovered in the Tylenol capsules.
The country's largest cyanide manufacturer is the E.I. DuPont deNemours Co. in Wilmington, Del., which, according to spokesman Edward Stewart, produces "in the millions of pounds" of the chemical annually.
Stewart said DuPont has officials meet with any new cyanide customer to evaluate his understanding of the chemical. "If we're not satisfied after that conversation that the person is qualified to use it, we refuse the order," Stewart said. Customers must also certify by letter that they understand the safety procedures necessary for handling cyanide.
Most of DuPont's industrial customers are manufacturing and mining concerns who use the chemical as a catalyst to separate metals like gold and silver from raw ore, or use it in the electroplating process.
One byproduct of the Chicago deaths may be increased political pressure to increase the regulation of such poisons. Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, late yesterday sent a letter to EPA Administrator Anne M. Gorsuch asking her to investigate the possibility of further regulation.
"Clearly few persons could have anticipated that anyone would take the irrational and inhuman action which led to these deaths," Stafford's letter said. "However, the action having nonetheless been taken, it is incumbent on you or some other official to determine the appropriate regulatory response for the control of cyanide in order to prevent a recurrence."