trend in the method of committing suicide is continuing to grow in the United States
and it poses a viable threat to first responders. This method does not involve
firearms, knives or medications, but rather common household products. When
mixed together, they can produce one of the most toxic gases known to man: Hydrogen
method evolved in Japan
in the late 2000s and is known as “chemical suicide” or “detergent suicide.” Since
that time and due to this method, deaths in Japan have been estimated to be in
the hundreds by some officials. It is believed that the first chemical suicides
were carried out in the United
States in 2008.
What is Hydrogen Sulfide?
sulfide (H2S) is a colorless gas that is heavier than air. It is produced in
nature by the decomposition of organic materials. It is also known as sewer
gas, sour gas, sulfane, and stink damp. H2S can be found in sewers, swamps, and
in the air around petroleum producing locations. It can also be produced
chemically by mixing certain household chemicals together. It is water-soluble
and, in low concentrations, there is a distinct odor often described as “rotten
eggs.” It is flammable and has a half-life of 37 hours.
of the most dangerous characteristics of hydrogen sulfide gas is that a
person’s sense of smell can be inhibited after just few minutes of exposure to
low concentrations. Because of this, first responders may not be aware of its
presence or may unknowingly wander farther into higher concentrations.
Effects of Exposure
of the effects of contamination to people can be inflammation of the respiratory
system, difficulty breathing, rapid or slow heart beat, sweating, delirium,
headache, sensitivity to light, blueness of skin due to depleted oxygen in the
blood stream, and drowsiness. Hydrogen sulfide can be deadly in higher
concentrations. The maximum allowable safe concentration according to OSHA is 20
parts per million (PPM).
some possible effects when exposed to different levels. At 100 PPM, the loss of
smell after a few minutes, respiratory irritation, drowsiness, and death can occur
after 48 hours. At 500-700 PPM, the loss of consciousness and possible death
after 30 minutes. At 1000-2000 PPM, the immediate loss of consciousness and
death. To put things in perspective, one part per million would be equivalent
to one minute in two years, or one penny in $10,000.
Easy to Make
method of artificially producing hydrogen sulfide involves mixing chemicals
containing hydrochloric acid with compounds that contains a sulfur product. When
mixed in a small, confined area such as a closet, very high concentrations of
gas can be achieved. Many of these compounds can be found in easily obtainable
household products. Some common household products containing acid are toilet
bowl and disinfectant cleaners, and some tile and stone cleaning products.
containing products can include dandruff shampoos, some types of paints,
spackling, and pesticides/fungicides. Only a few ounces of each is needed to
produce enough gas to fill a small confined area such as a car interior or
small closet with the equivalency of 1,000 PPM of Hydrogen Sulfide gas in just
a few seconds. An important thing to note is that while it only takes a small
amount to produce concentrations high enough to cause death, mixing large
amounts will produce an extremely hazardous and deadly environment.
the half-life number of 37 hours? Take a confined atmosphere of say 1,000 PPM,
with no environmental interference, after 37 hours, half of the product has
decomposed, leaving 500 PPM. After another 37 hours, again half the product is
lost, leaving 250 PPM. The gas can last a very long time and still be deadly.
Colder weather can extend the half-life, prolonging the lethality even
of the suicides take place in a small confined area such as a vehicle interior
or a small closet. In most reported cases thus far, warning notes and Hazmat
placards have been placed on the outside or inside of doors and on windows
which warn those who approach that poisonous gases are present.
danger to first responders is that the resulting chemical reaction can produce
by-products such as water (condensation) or a chemical fog, which can distort
or deteriorate the notes left as warnings. The chemical reaction will often
create brightly colored substances (if mixing containers are present).
the doors may be sealed with tape on the inside to keep the gas from escaping.
If notes or placards are placed on the outside, elements such as wind, rain or
snow may destroy them. As a result, first responders cannot depend on these
warning signs, as they can become rendered unreadable, especially if placed on
the inside of the car window.
who enters a scene without taking proper precautions can quickly become a
victim. How many times has it happened where first responders are sent to an
unresponsive subject in a vehicle? With these types of suicides in mind, we
can’t afford to blindly extract the person out of the vehicle. Can you imagine
opening the door to an environment that is 1,000-2,000 PPM and getting a lung
full of hydrogen sulfide gas?
have been reports of first responders and civilians overcome and injured due to
opening a door to a vehicle where poisonous gases were present. In one
incident, snow had distorted the warning note. In another, no notes were
attached to the vehicle. Remember these types of incidents are not exclusive to
vehicles; they can occur anywhere there is a confined space. Just a small
amount of gas is needed to make an environment deadly. Fortunately, I could not
find any deaths to first responders or civilians due to these actions.
Use Proper Tactics
are some hazard signs to look for, though. In most cases, the products (in
their original containers) are mixed while inside the enclosed environments.
Mixing containers can be almost anything, plastic buckets, pots, water jugs, or
even the center or passenger-side glove boxes. There may be mixing tools such
as spoons or sticks. There may be receipts for the products in plain view.
arriving on the scene, a threat assessment needs to be done. Is the vehicle
occupied? Is the person inside responsive? Are there notes warning of poisonous
gases? Is there a distinct odor of rotten eggs? Is there condensation on the
inside of the vehicle? Are mixing buckets, utensils or household chemical
containers present? If none of these are present, then it is most likely not a
chemical suicide. However, if any of the listed clues are present, then
precautions should be taken.
would also be advantageous to have communications personnel trained to
recognize the signs of chemical suicides. Dispatchers can relay valuable
information to responding officers. They can also warn callers not to approach
or extract persons who may have attempted chemical suicide. When dealing with a
suspected chemical suicide, responders should utilize Level 1 SCBN gear, as
well as have the jurisdiction’s hazardous materials unit respond.
may be instances where a large area will need to be evacuated. This will need
to be determined during your assessment. Wind speed and direction are important
factors that must be considered prior to an evacuation. If confined areas need
to be ventilated, it is critical to determine that no one will be affected by
the vapors before doing so. There was an instance in Japan where an apartment building
was evacuated due to the gas sinking (remember hydrogen sulfide is heavier than
air) into other rooms. Numerous victims were taken to the hospital.
should utilize public address systems to awaken victims if it is possible that
they are sleeping. If no response is noted, then a thorough reconnaissance
should be conducted before entering and assisting the victim. If the victim
appears to be awake, have them come to you. Anyone exposed to hazardous vapors
should be decontaminated with soap and water. First aid/CPR should be carried
out with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) as gases can be present in
the lungs and may be “gassed out” as a result of first aid efforts.
clothing should be bagged. The dangerous gases can also accumulate in clothing
so caution should be used during their handling. Deceased victims should be
confined to sheets or tarps rather than body bags as again the gases may
release from the body and, if in a confined space, a high level may accumulate.
Anyone in close vicinity may be overcome. Hospitals should also be advised, if
victims are transported to their facility, so that they may take the proper
protocols for handling this type of situation.
suicides are becoming more commonplace in our society. It is critical that
first responders adapt to this method of suicide for their own protection.
Educate personnel on the dangers of chemical suicides. Perform a thorough
assessment of the scene, look for clues that would indicate the presence of
hazardous materials, use personal protective gear, use proper techniques when
handling exposures, and notify the proper agencies to dispose of hazardous
Gary Fuxa is a
Lieutenant in the Training Division with the Enid, Okla. Police Department. He may
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.