The meat industry uses nitrite in ham and salami to prevent botulism poisoning, but it also adds a salty flavor. It helps cured meats retain their reddish-pink color and dehydrates harmful bacteria.
However, nitrites can damage cells in the body and turn into cancer-causing compounds when exposed to certain conditions. This can be especially dangerous for infants and pregnant women, according to Healthy Child, Healthy World.
Sodium nitrite has been linked to a variety of health problems, including kidney and heart disease, a blood disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome and brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises avoiding foods with nitrite as a precautionary measure.
It is an antidote to cyanide poisoning and an antimicrobial food preservative. Sodium nitrite is also a food antioxidant and an antihypertensive agent.
Other uses include corrosion inhibitor for old tanks, pipelines and antifreeze. Moreover, it is a component in heat transfer salts and chem in metal treatment and finishing operations. It is also a detinning solution and an additive in industrial greases.
Sodium nitrite is used in the synthesis of diazo dyes and nitroso compounds, as well as the synthesis of pharmaceuticals, agricultural pesticides and other chemicals. It also plays a role in the treatment of hydrogen sulfide poisoning and cyanide poisoning. The World Health Organization lists sodium nitrite on its List of Essential Medicines.