Cyanide jar, Aug. 9, 2013. Photo: Eden Teller
Exterminators found these vessels buried in the dirt beneath a North Berkeley home late last week. Photo: Eden Teller

Pest control workers on Friday excavated three old containers under a North Berkeley home, one of which was labeled “deadly poison,” authorities said.

The exterminators were doing termite work under a home near Colusa Avenue and Thousand Oaks Boulevard on Friday afternoon when they came across the vessels buried in the soil, said Acting Deputy Fire Chief Avery Webb.

“There’s no telling how long they had been down there in the dirt,” said Webb. “They dug up the jars and they were intact. They weren’t leaking.”

One of the vessels, a glass jar, was marked 1927, and had a handwritten label that read “Sodium Cyanide Deadly Poison.” Two metal containers, both empty, also were found along with the jar, the homeowner told Berkeleyside.

The Berkeley Fire Department’s hazardous materials team responded, and conducted air monitoring and thermal imaging tests to ensure that the containers were stable. When it was determined that they weren’t leaking, they were turned over to the homeowner to dispose of. Webb said the homeowner was instructed to call a chemical disposal company for further instructions.

Webb said sodium cyanide can be used to separate gold from other minerals, and is also sometimes used as a poison.

Cyanide jar, Aug. 9, 2013. Photo: Eden Teller
This jar, found by exterminators, appeared to be dated 1927 and was marked “Sodium Cyanide Deadly Poison.” Photo: Eden Teller
This jar, found by exterminators, appeared to be dated 1927 and was marked “Sodium Cyanide Deadly Poison.” Photo: Eden Teller

“What that one was being used for is anybody’s guess, especially since we’re a university town, with residents who may have some connection to chemistry,” said Webb. “It may have belonged to a miner, a chemist, or… who knows?”

The homeowner was unaware that the containers were buried beneath the house, Webb said.

He noted that it was “amazing the exterminators didn’t break the jar. If they had broken it, we would have had a bigger problem to deal with.”

Webb said the Fire Department would have had to take further action if the contents had leaked or if the containers had been found on public property. Once, many years ago, he recalled, firefighters found a container of picric acid buried underground in a jar. That too can constitute a hazard, depending on its state.

“It was also underneath the floor,” Webb remembered. “Sometimes, when you have real old buildings, people end up with things they don’t know what to do with, and so they hide it or get rid of it in some other way.”

He continued: “Usually, when you encounter this stuff, it’s stuff that’s really old. Old stuff can be of great concern. In this case, with these containers that have a handwritten label, there’s the possibility of another substance [being] in there. It’s not off-gassing, so hopefully they’ll just handle it with care and dispose of it in a safe way.”

The homeowner, who asked not to be named, said she had just moved into the house in December. For now, she’s keeping the containers in an alcove on the side of her home. She said she feared the jar of cyanide would be tough to dispose of, and that she’d have to be very careful as the jar containing the solution appears quite fragile.

Berkeleyside intern Eden Teller contributed to this report.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...