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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Detergent Suicides: A Deadly Phenomenon

Chemical suicides, more popularly known as detergent suicides, have been a growing issue in the United States since 2008.  Detergent suicides originated in 2007 in Japan where more than 2,000 cases have been recorded to date.  Japan has the ninth highest suicide rate in the world.  There have been approximately 50 cases of this type of suicide recorded in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010.  It is believed that chemical suicides are greatly underreported.  A chemical suicide is preformed by first creating hydrogen sulfide (H2S) or, less frequently, hydrogen cyanide (HCN).
Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that has a strong odor of rotten eggs.  It is often found naturally in coal pits, sulfur springs, gas pits and sewers.  H2S is often referred to as sewer gas.  This gas is an olfactory nerve paralyzer, meaning, even in a low concentration, it will lead to a loss of smell.  This is a dangerous reaction because the sickening odor of H2S is noticeable around 100 PPM (parts per million), but at this level, the sense of smell is paralyzed so quickly that the odor may not be noticed.  H2S has a vapor density of 1.19, which is heavier than air.  H2S is initially found close to the ground but will quickly diffuse and engulf an entire area.  The vapors can be “knocked down” with a water spray from a hose, but the created runoff needs to be contained and disposed of because it is both toxic and corrosive.
To make hydrogen sulfide, it is necessary to mix a hydrochloric acid with a sulfur-containing compound.  Often, hydrochloric acid is mixed with lime sulfur, which has a 28% solution of calcium polysulfide.  These chemicals can easily be bought from a grocery store or hardware store.
Approximately half of a cup of each chemical, hydrochloric acid and lime sulfur, will produce about 1,000 PPM of H2S in a confined location of approximately 3,500 cubic feet.  People mixing these chemicals have often mixed several containers of each to increase the volume of gas produced.  One of the chemicals is a base, the other an acid, creating a violent exothermic reaction (a chemical change accompanied by a liberation of heat).
The IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health) threshold for hydrogen sulfide is 100 PPM.  Suicidal individuals mix a highly potent 1,000 PPM or more of H2S.  Even a single breath of H2S at 1,000 PPM will cause the individual to immediately collapse with cardiopulmonary arrest.
First responders and rescue personnel need to take special precautions and safety measures when dealing with a suicide case that involves a high concentration of chemicals.  All clothing should be removed from the individual and double bagged.  Decontamination of the body would follow whatever normal protocol is typically practiced.  The body should be wrapped in sheets and tarps instead of using a body bag.  Rescue personnel need to be very careful because victims may off-gas from their lungs for a significant time post death.  When transporting the dead body, it is important to try to use an “open” vehicle like an official pick up truck instead of an enclosed vehicle where the body would be in the same enclosed space as the driver.
Hydrogen sulfide is a mucous membrane and respiratory tract irritant.  In extremely high concentrations it may also irritate the skin.  The symptomatology of higher concentrations of H2S (anything over 50 PPM) is severe and targets various body systems.  Central nervous system stimulation, which includes rapid breathing and headache, will precede central nervous system depression: respiratory paralysis and death.  Exposure to a high enough concentration may lead to an accumulation of fluid in the lungs which may not occur until 72 hours after inhalation.  A more extensive symptomatology can be read at safetydirectory.com under hazardous substances.
Hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is another chemical combination used in suicides.  This is seen less frequently that H2S, but is very toxic and dangerous.  HCN is a colorless gas or a bluish-white liquid.  The chemical may have an odor of burnt almonds though it is not always noticed.  Like H2S, hydrogen cyanide is an olfactory nerve paralyzer.  It is dangerously toxic by inhalation, skin absorption and ingestion.  HCN has a vapor density of 0.94 which is lighter than air.  The chemical is found above the ground and will diffuse like H2S to completely engulf a space with its vapors.
Hydrogen cyanide is made by mixing hydrochloric acid with cyanide-containing compounds.  The IDLH for hydrogen cyanide gas is 50 PPM.  HCN, unlike H2S, is readily absorbed through the skin, causing systemic poisoning, so when dealing with this chemical it is important to wear proper skin protection.
HCN is a tissue asphyxiant that affects almost all body tissue.  The asphyxiant is given to cells in exchange for carbon dioxide which poisons the cells, causing the cells to never again accept oxygen from red blood cells.  HCN is among the most common of tissue asphyxiants.  Fatalities occur in just minutes after internal exposure to the chemical.
A high concentration of HCN (over 50 PPM) causes a symptomatology including seizures, coma and cardiovascular collapse.  Death will occur in 30-60 minutes after inhalation of HCN with a 110 PPM, and instantly with a 250 PPM.
Very sadly, instructions for performing a chemical suicide are easily found on the Internet.  These sites will encourage participants to use warning signs so that rescue responders are aware of the fatal chemical situation present.  In 90 percent of the cases, clearly marked signs are posted in windows or on the structure where the suicide occurred.  These signs will explain that HAZ-MAT is required and that the responder should not open the door because of the deadly gases and fumes.  However, for the
10 percent of cases that do not label their suicides as dangerous to others, responders should take extra time to assess the situation before entering any enclosed space or opening a door or window.  Responders should look for buckets or containers that may have been used for the mixing of the chemicals.
In April of 2010, a biochemistry major at Indiana University used knowledge from his major to kill himself.  He committed suicide in his dormitory closet using H2S and was not found until seven to 10 days later.  He put a sign on his closet door that read “Warning H2S” so that no one, besides himself, would be harmed.
In February of 2010, a 30-year-old man committed suicide in his Toyota Camry using approximately 5-gallons of H2S.  Like the Indiana University scholar, he marked his car with a sign that read “HAZMAT TEAM NEEDED.  DO NOT OPEN! POISON GAS!”
Today in the U.S., the use of H2S or HCN is limited to individual suicides.  There is a growing concern that impressionable middle school and high school aged children will begin using these chemical combinations to kill themselves.  Some investigators fear that younger individuals will create a “suicide pact,” a phenomenon recently reported in the UK.  No one wants to see a group of children going out during recess to commit a group detergent suicide.
In a 2009 PowerPoint created by The New York State Office of Fire Prevention & Control, Hazardous Materials/Homeland Security Bureau, several chemical suicide examples from Japan were explained.  The most notable of examples was about a
14-year-old girl who committed chemical suicide in 2008.  She mixed laundry detergent with liquid cleanser in her bathroom, releasing fumes which “sickened” 90 people in her apartment building.  The bathroom door was closed and she hung up a sign stating: “gas being emitted” but the H2S gas escaped from the bathroom window and entered neighboring apartments.  None of the girl’s neighbors were killed or severely hurt, but 10 were hospitalized.  Her suicide was part of an “expanding string of similar deaths that experts say have been encouraged by Internet suicide sites.”  Many officials, in Japan and the United States, have tried to get internet sites to take down chemical suicide recipes and related suicide sites, but haven’t had much success.
The availability of the chemicals used to make hydrogen sulfide in concert with the almost immediate result of death, makes this type of suicide a growing phenomenon.  It is important to be aware and knowledgeable of the smells and signs of H2S and HCN so that emergency rescuers, onlookers, and the like, do not get harmed.  As always, communication is key and if you or someone you know is showing suicidal signs, you should contact professionals immediately.

Detergent Suicides: A Deadly Phenomenon March 1, 2011

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