Chemical Suicide Dangers for First Responders

TASA ID: 18027

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 a “Detergent Suicide.”  It is “advertised as a quick and painless way to end one’s life.

This technique that is credited with starting in Japan and has gained popularity in the US thru 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 three-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 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. It also has a downloadable PDF consisting of a ready-made warning sign to alert neighbors and emergency workers to the deadly hazard.

The US saw its first chemical suicide in mid 2008. Since that time there have been over 72 documented within up to mid 2011. They appear to be rising rapidly within the US. The first year saw three reported incidents, 2009 had nine reported incidents, and 2010 had 30 chemical suicides.

These incidents not only pose a danger to the responders, but, unlike many other types of suicide methods are dangerous to innocent bystanders as well. In one case, 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.  

Both gases are well known and respected for their effects by HazMat responders worldwide.  Below is a 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.

These gases can be created from very common precursors.  Various acid 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, artists’ oil paints; dandruff shampoos; pesticides; spackling paste; latex paints; garden fungicides; and 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 of 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: 

For vehicles - 
Tape over vents and windows
Empty containers of chemicals in or around the vehicle

Photo 1

For dwellings – 
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

Photo 2

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 cannot only endanger bystanders but themselves as well.  Breaking a window on a vehicle or to a room filled with H2S is definitely not a good idea unless precautions are taken.  Proper PPE must be worn by any responders in the hot zone surrounding the incident and possible victims moved upwind 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 breathing) or their bodies.  Neither can just be transported as they will be off gassing and can cause fatalities to medical or morgue personnel.  If still alive they must be treated by personnel in proper PPE while being given O2 to prevent further exposure. 

Photo 3

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 treatment and transport to a hospital or removal to a morgue.

Chances are sooner or later every responder will encounter a situation likes this.   This article was not written to set policy but merely to make you stop, think and plan before you act instinctively.  Remember what I stated: Don’t be a John Wayne, he is dead.

The expert has an extensive background in emergency response, post-blast investigations and crime scene response. He is an internationally-recognized expert in basic forensic matters, as well as fire debris/explosive response and analysis. He is the Director of the Western Forensic Law Enforcement Training Center (WFLETC)/Q-Branch.

TASA Article Disclaimer

This article discusses issues of general interest and does not give any specific legal or business advice pertaining to any specific circumstances.  Before acting upon any of its information, you should obtain appropriate advice from a lawyer or other qualified professional.

This article may not be duplicated, altered, distributed, saved, incorporated into another document or website, or otherwise modified without the permission of TASA and the author TASA ID#: 18027. Contact marketing@tasanet.com for any questions.


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