The word “chemical” brings to mind a lot of imagery of science labs and dangerous compounds, even though everything has a chemical structure from corn syrup, which is C6H14O7 to good ol’ water which everyone knows as H2O. So a chemical compound can take literally any form, some of which are harmless, some of which are beneficial, and some of which are so bafflingly dangerous you should never be in the same room with them. Let’s look at 10 of those ones.
10. The Dangerously Reactive Chlorine Trifluoride
Most of us will never encounter chlorine trifluoride in the wild and that’s just as well because it’s an entirely horrible substance. It’s so reactive that when people write about it they use words like “absurd” and “insane” and these are science people so you know something remarkable must happen with this compound when it gets loose.
It’s a high-energy fluorinating agent typically stored as liquified gas. It’s incredibly corrosive and toxic and can make almost anything in the world burn. Not just normal things that you would consider flammable but this like cement and glass which have no business burning under normal circumstances. It can even burn asbestos. Once it’s burning, it’s also nearly impossible to put out until it burns itself out. Water causes it to explode and burn even more, so that’s not an option. The gasses it produces are toxic and will also severely corrode nearby metal. The by-products of it include hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acid.
When it was discovered, its military uses were quickly exploited. Bombs and flamethrowers were the obvious choices and, since it’s so easy to make, there could be an abundant supply. However, only about 30 tons were ever made because, despite being cheap, easy and effective, it was just too unstable and dangerous to use. You can only store it safely in a container that has been treated with fluorine gas, but if it gets knocked around, it’ll still probably explode. It reacts so quickly with literally everything that scientists haven’t even been able to measure its reaction time.
In the 1950s, one ton of chlorine trifluoride was spilled on a warehouse floor. It proceeded to burn through an entire foot of concrete and three more feet of gravel, releasing acid steam the entire time.
9. The Bizarrely Explosive Azidoazide Azide
Science has developed many things that can explode over the years, including popular substances like TNT and C4. But the reason those ones are so popular is that, relatively speaking, they’re pretty stable and easy to use. And if you’re thinking that things like TNT are not really all that stable, we did say “relatively.” Compared to azidoazide azide, pretty much everything is relatively stable.
The formula for azidoazide azide is C2N14 which you’ll notice is a lot of nitrogen. That’s part of the reason it’s perhaps the most explosive compound in the world. Why the word “perhaps?” Because to know for sure if it’s the most explosive compound in the world you’d need to study and measure that quality of it and no one has been able to do that because it keeps blowing up.
To put that in perspective, people whose job it is to use the finest, most delicate instruments to handle unstable compounds have been unable to measure the explosive ability of this compound because almost everything seems to make it explode. Moving it makes it explode. Putting it in a solution makes it explode. They even tried to get an infrared spectrum analysis of it and that made it explode. They had to use a weaker light source the next time in the hopes of not blowing it up, which seemed to work so add “weak light” as something that won’t blow it up.
8. VX Nerve Gas
If you saw the Michael Bay movie The Rock back in 1996, you may already be familiar with VX gas. That incredibly toxic substance from the film wasn’t just made up for the movie. It’s a real thing and yes, it’s super deadly. In fact, it’s the deadliest nerve agent in the world that can cause a wide array of reactions in those exposed, none of which aren’t terrible.
In 2022, the US government destroyed 18,000 VX gas warheads, nearly eliminating its entire chemical weapons stockpile which was once up around 30,000 tonnes of VX, sarin and mustard gas. Just a few milligrams can be fatal and it was used to kill Kim Jong-un’s half-brother back in 2017.
Symptoms of VX exposure can occur within seconds and include a laundry list of things ranging from eye pain to diarrhea to drooling and vomiting. Paralysis and fatal respiratory failure can follow thanks to the fact that VX, as a nerve agent, prevents your muscles and glands from “turning off,” meaning they will become overstimulated, tired, and make it impossible for you to continue breathing. Death can occur in just minutes depending on how much exposure took place.
7. Incredibly Toxic Batrachotoxin
The list of compounds that can kill you in the world is remarkably long. Some things require long term exposure to become lethal while others can be toxic in frightfully small amounts. Batrachotoxin is one of those kinds of compounds.
The poison that makes dart frogs so dangerous, a batrachotoxin dose the size of two grains of salt can kill a 150 pound adult. That works out to 136 micrograms. One tiny frog has about 8 doses in its body. You can see why the toxin was used by indigenous hunters from the same part of the world where the frogs are found. On a small scale, some of these frogs have enough toxin to take out 20,000 mice.
6. Dioxygen Difluoride
Sometimes known by the deceptively harmless name FOOF, dioxygen difluoride is a remarkably reactive substance that has proven far too dangerous for scientists to work with in most instances. It is most stable at remarkably low temperatures, one paper listed 90 Kelvin, which is about -180 C and -300 F, and even then it’s hard to call it safe. At room temperature it will simply blow up rather dramatically.
The same paper says it blows up instantly when exposed to solid ethyl alcohol. It burned instantly when a drop was exposed to methane at 90K and exploded when that volume was upped to just 0.2 mL. And this is all at temperatures lower than you’ll ever find naturally on Earth.
FOOF was exposed to everything from plain water to ammonia, chlorine, phosphorus and more. Each time the reaction was pretty much the same – explosion.
5. Piranha Solution
If you ever want to see an uncomfortable Youtube video, look up piranha solution dissolving chicken legs and you might lose your appetite. You’ll see just how quickly these especially effective acids are when it comes to dissolving flesh.
Many acids are highly corrosive and we’ll see the world’s worst one later, but not all acids are acutely able to dissolve flesh very quickly. In fact, to completely dissolve muscle and bone, it may take over a day to complete the process. But piranha solutions can strip meat from bone in minutes. It will also strip away the bone completely as well if it’s submerged making it more effective at eliminating organic material than a pure acid.
Piranha solution is not just an acid, it’s a three to one mix of mixture of sulfuric acid and 30% hydrogen peroxide. The practical purpose is to clean organic matter off of things quickly and efficiently.
4. Sodium Cyanide
Once upon a time, cyanide poisoning was the way to either get rid of someone you didn’t want around or to take yourself out. Alan Turing may have killed himself by ingesting a cyanide laced apple, or maybe just accidentally while eating an apple, and it’s believed Hitler and Ava Braun but relied on cyanide as well, among some other prominent Nazis in their attempt to escape justice. Their choice was an effective one as well, since cyanide is still regarded as one of the most potent poisons in the world.
Once ingested, symptoms can begin in moments, and death can occur in mere minutes. A large enough dose can kill in just seconds. It’s also a naturally produced chemical that you can find all kinds of things from algae to fungus to spinach, almonds, lima beans and peach pits.That’s one of the things that makes it so dangerous since it’s everywhere.
3. Fluoroantimonic Acid
Acids can be fairly mild and not at all harmful, like citric acid or acetic acid. But the most powerful acids can be extremely dangerous, as we saw with piranha solution, and you’re not likely to find one as dangerous as fluoroantimonic acid. It’s stronger than sulfuric acid by a substantial margin. What qualifies as substantial? It’s about 20 quintillion times stronger.
It reacts with almost any substance including glass, and can only be stored in a container lined with polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon. The fumes it gives off can cause respiratory failure and, in addition to being able to melt through flesh and bone, it reacts with moisture so if you got it on your skin it would both burn and explode.
For a fun change of pace let’s take a look at thioacetone, a compound that as far as we know has never killed anyone before. So how does it rank as one of the most dangerous in the world? Because thioacetone smells worse than anything ever.
No one knows exactly how or why thioacetone smells because determining that would mean making it and enduring it and that’s not a thing anyone seems able or willing to do. In one of the first recorded instances of it existing, it was produced in a German lab back in 1889. The smell traveled out of the lab and into the surrounding city and was so bad people panicked and fled the town when they weren’t vomiting or passing out. Try to imagine how bad something has to smell for it to be produced in one single building before causing the townspeople around it to flee in terror.
People in a building 200 yards from the source were vomiting. This was after a stopper, just the stopper, came off a bottle of residue and was immediately replaced. Researchers who had apparently gone nose blind to the smell were sprayed with deodorant at a restaurant and, to prove to them how bad their stuff stunk, an experiment was done that proved you could smell it down wind a quarter mile away in just seconds.
1. Dimethyl Cadmium
Dimethyl cadmium has been called the most dangerous chemical in the world and there are almost no circumstances in which it would be safe to be around it. At room temperature it is quick to evaporate and if you inhale it, even a few micrograms can be toxic.
In your body, the chemical travels your bloodstream to your organs and strips the electrons from your cell walls. It’s also carcinogenic, so any cells not destroyed the first way can be destroyed by cancer.
Liquid dimethyl cadmium can either burst into flames and give off toxic fumes, or it can dry out to an extremely explosive crust that is highly unstable. If it’s dropped in water, it will just explode in a series of small bursts. For an added bonus, it apparently stinks as well so you’ll have an olfactory clue that you’re about to die if you’re ever exposed.