Chemical Suicides – Dangers for First Responders
James B. Crippin with John C. Fisher
Instructor/Trainer, J3 International Consulting Services, LLC
Director/Owner, Western Forensic Law Enforcement Training Center (WFLETC)
Pueblo, CO USA
Chemical suicides are defined as "self-inflicted death by mixing various chemicals designed to release toxic fumes in an enclosed space". This technique is credited with starting in Japan and has gained popularity in the United States through instructions posted on the Internet.
Chemical suicides are defined as “self-inflicted death by mixing various chemicals designed to release toxic fumes in an enclosed space”. This type of incident is also referred to as “Detergent Suicide”. It is “advertised” as a quick and painless way to end one’s life. However, consultation with medical experts agree that ingestion of Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) or Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) is a painful and “ugly” death, with the victim “drowning” from the fumes.
This technique that is credited with starting in Japan and has gained popularity in the United States through instructions posted on the internet. It is estimated that 500 Japanese men, women and children took their lives in the first half of 2008. There were a total of 208 persons that committed chemical suicide in a 3 month period alone. They did so by following instructions posted on various Japanese websites that describe how to mix bath sulfur (bath salts) with a toilet bowl cleaner (acid) to create a poisonous gas (H2S). One site goes so far as to include an application to help calculate the portions needed of each ingredient in order to correctly fill a rooms volume with the deadly gas. The site also contains a downloadable PDF of a ready-made warning sign to alert neighbors and emergency workers to the deadly hazard.
The United States saw its first chemical suicide in mid 2008. Since that time there have been over 72 suspected cases documented up to mid 2011. These cases appear to be rising rapidly within the United States. The first year reported, 2008 saw 3 suspected incidents, 2009 had 9 suspected incidents, 2010 had over 30 suspected chemical suicides. The Colorado State Fire Chiefs’ Association reported four incidents in Colorado between 2008 and 2010.
These incidents not only pose a danger to the responders but unlike many other forms of suicide methods are dangerous to innocent bystanders as well. One case in Japan, a 14-year-old girl used a chemical suicide methodology to take her life and some 90 residents in the apartment building where she lived were sickened. Luckily no one else died from exposure to the chemicals.
Responders should take all appropriate precautions, including appropriate PPE and care in making entry as some by products may be flammable in addition to being toxic. Hydrogen Cyanide has an LEL of 5600 ppm. Hydrogen Sulfide can cause the sense of smell to deaden at levels as low as 150 ppm.
Both gases are well known and respected for their effects by HazMat responders worldwide. Below are table of their characteristics and effects.
As one can see H2S is heavier than air while HCN is lighter. The LEL/UEL are very similar, but the vapor pressures are vastly different. Hydrogen Sulfide has the odor of rotten eggs and Hydrogen Cyanide has the odor of bitter almonds. Both are inhalation hazards but hydrogen cyanide can also be absorbed through contact with mucous membranes, eyes, and skin.
Both of these compounds can be created from common precursors. Various acids sources and sulfur bearing compounds can be used to produce both hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide.
Acid sources include Muriatic acid; Sulfuric acid (drain cleaners); Lysol disinfectant; Lysol toilet bowl cleaner; The Works toilet bowl cleaner; Blu-lite Germicidal acid bowl cleaner; Kaboom Shower, Tub and Tile cleaner; Tile and Stone cleaners to name a few. Sulfur and cyanide sources include Artist oil paints; Dandruff shampoos; Pesticides; Spackling paste; Latex paints; Garden fungicides; & Lime Sulfur.
In the vast majority of instances there are several commonalities. First – all victims were in a small enclosed space whether it was a vehicle or a room, Second – the victims (when visible) showed no signs of trauma, Third – there were signs/placards present indicating poisonous/toxic gas present, Fourth – buckets or other containers of chemicals were possibly visible, Fifth - smell of rotten eggs or bitter almonds. All of these are key indicators. Other indicators for specific locations are as follows:
Tape over vents or windows
Empty containers of chemicals in or around the vehicle
Other persons from inside the house complaining of difficulty breathing
The smell of rotten eggs or sewer gas in the area and gets stronger as you approach the target residence
Basic protocols must be followed when approaching. Always assume the worst so that you can work to solve the problem. Don’t be John Wayne and rush in before assessing the scene. John Wayne is dead and can’t do anyone any good. Rash actions by responders can not only endanger bystanders but themselves as well. Breaking a window on a vehicle or to a room filled with H2S or HCN is definitely not a good idea unless proper precautions are taken. Proper PPE must be worn by all responders in the hot zone surrounding the incident and by-standers moved to a safe area before any entry can be attempted.
These instances must be considered a crime scene until proper authorities determine otherwise. Other than ventilating (i.e. airing out the scene) nothing should be moved and all effort to prevent further contamination of the scene must be taken. Chemical suicides represent an unusual aspect with regards to the victims (if they are still alive), their bodies and items present on the scene. Neither can just be transported as they may be off-gassing and can cause fatalities or injuries to medical or morgue personnel. If still alive they must be treated by personnel in proper PPE and decontaminated.
Both the living and deceased victims must be monitored to determine when it is safe for unprotected personnel to work with them whether it is decontamination, treatment and transport to a hospital or removal to a morgue.
Chances are sooner or later first responders will encounter a situation likes this. This article was not written to set policy but merely to make you stop, think and plan before acting instinctively. Remember: Don't be John Wayne, he is dead.
About the Authors
James B. Crippin is an internationally recognized expert in the field of explosives, is currently trainer with J3 International Consulting Services in Pueblo West, Colorado, as well as the Director of the Western Forensic Law Enforcement Training Center in Pueblo, CO. He has taught numerous courses in the area of hazardous materials and emergency response for various organizations including the ERCT at TTCI in Pueblo, CO.
John C. Fisher, a former Chief of Police and Law Enforcement Academy Director is also a trainer with J3 International Consulting Services in Pueblo West, Colorado, as well as the Security Program manager for HSS at St. Mary Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo, CO. John has taught firearms and CBRNE classes internationally.