It is suspected that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) may be an important factor in incapacitating fire victims, but the effects of sublethal exposures are not well characterized. Also, the incapacitating effects of fire atmospheres result from exposure to a mixture of toxic products so that the contribution from each component is difficult to determine. The mechanisms of incapacitation in monkeys exposed to the pyrolysis products of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) were compared to those resulting from low level HCN gas exposures. The physiological effects of the PAN atmospheres were almost identical to those of HCN gas alone. They consisted of hyperventilation, followed by loss of consciousness after 1-5 min, bradycardia with arrhythmias and T-wave abnormalities, and were followed by a rapid recovery after exposure. Hydrogen cyanide is considered to be the major toxic product formed by the pyrolysis of PAN. It is suggested that HCN may produce rapid incapacitation at low blood levels of cyanide in fires, while death may occur later due to carbon monoxide poisoning or other factors.