Hazardous materialsDetergent suicides on the rise

Published 9 November 2011

The incidence of chemical suicides has been steadily increasing in the United States since its first appearance in 2008; it is believed the statistics are incorrect because of underreporting; most such suicides provide warning of the toxicity of the environment they will be found in, but not all do, making responding to these calls a hazard for all concerned

Though relatively small in raw numbers, detergent, or chemical, suicide has been increasing exponentially since its introduction into the United States.

Originating in Japan in 2007, authorities there have since seen over 2,000 cases. In the United States, according to a report in fireengineering.com, 2008 saw three cases, 2009 had nine cases, and in 2010, the number of reported cases grew to thirty. According to a New York Times report, the number had increased to twenty-seven as of June, indicating that the number of such suicides continues to increase.

It is important to realize that the number of actual cases is very likely to be much higher, due to underreporting. The real danger lies not only in the statistics, but in the impact of the first responders arriving at the scene.

Chemical suicide involves the combination of common household cleaning chemicals. The most common toxin released in these “cocktails” is hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, colorless with its characteristic “rotten egg” smell.

Hydrogen sulfide attacks in three ways. First, it paralyzes the olfactory nerves, deadening the sense of smell even in low concentrations, which is key to awareness of its presence.

Secondly, it is an asphyxiant that kills by rendering the body’s cells unable to make use of the oxygen that may be present in the body, thereby killing at the cellular level, in much the same manner as hydrogen cyanide (HCN) does.

Lastly, hydrogen sulfide gas is a chemical irritant that attacks the eyes and airways, and can kill after just a few breaths.

Overall, 25 percent of deaths related to hydrogen sulfide gas occur in first responders, firefighters, and other professionals who understand the handling of the gas.

Many of the injuries emergency professionals have sustained have occurred despite the fact that the suicides frequently post notices on car windows, and elsewhere, that there is they are in a highly toxic environment. Unfortunately, not all such cases try to provide warning.

Professionals recommend observing a 10-second rule. Responders should take an extra ten seconds to observe the interior of the vehicle, with an eye to finding buckets or bottles, containers of pesticides or acids, vents that may be taped off, and a green or yellow residue on the interior surfaces.

Extraction of the victim from the contaminated environment presents problems in itself. The gas’s property of being heavier-than-air means that it is likely to remain where the victim is found, rather than slowly dissipating.

Additionally, chemical suicides require decontamination of both the body and the environment, including removing and decontamination of the victim’s clothing.

The rate of decay of hydrogen sulfide is from twelve to thirty-seven hours, with ambient temperature playing a major role in decay. The cooler the temperature, the longer the life of the compound.