In order to investigate structure-activity relationships that influence metabolism of nitriles to CN-, thiocyanate was measured, as an index of CN- release, in urine of rats given equimolar doses of nitriles. Significantly more SCN- was excreted after po than after ip administration of saturated (C2-C5) nitriles, but SCN- excretion was the same after both routes for n-hexanenitrile. Among saturated nitriles, SCN- excretion was maximal for the C3 and C4 compounds, propionitrile, n-butyronitrile, and isobutyronitrile, after both po and ip administration. SCN- excretion was not elevated after administration of the tertiary nitrile trimethylacetonitrile. Administration (po) of the unsaturated nitriles acrylonitrile, crotonitrile, and 3-butenenitrile yielded 37%, 5.6%, and 29% of the dose as SCN-, whereas after ip injection 4.5%, 4.6%, and 18% of the doses were excreted as SCN-, respectively. After iv injection of acrylonitrile, urinary SCN- content was not elevated, whereas 45% of an iv dose of the saturated analog propionitrile was excreted as SCN-. These results suggest that length of the carbon chain, presence of substituents at the alpha-carbon, position of double bonds, and, for some compounds, route of administration, are important factors influencing the release of CN- from nitriles.