The call came in to the 911 dispatch center from a frantic family member. The report was for an unconscious male, mid-20s, located in the garage of his suburban Philadelphia residence. Police arrived at the property and observed the man slouched in the driver’s seat of his vehicle, engine off and doors locked, with all the windows rolled up. The male was clearly unresponsive to the instructions and commands from the police. Almost immediately, the officers were overcome by a pungent odor, described as a sulfur or rotten egg smell. They were also suffering a severe irritation to their eyes and were driven back from getting any closer to the car because of the noxious fumes. Fire Department personnel arrived and donned the appropriate PPE gear, gained access to the vehicle, and the young man. He was pronounced dead, a victim of an apparent chemical suicide. It was the first of this type of suicide recorded in that particular county.
What are chemical suicides and why are they considered a new and growing threat for first responders, especially for the police? First let me go back, over 20 years now, to my Police Academy training. It was there I learned of the term “blue canaries”. This was an expression the fire-fighters had for police officers that may rush into a Hazardous Materials spill site, and due to the lack of a proper chemical suit and SCBA protection, are overtaken by the exposure to the toxic chemicals. This term’s origin dates back to the old coal mining method of taking the bird down into the shafts. If the canary dies, it would alert the miners to the presence of lethal gases and give them time to escape the deadly subterranean environment.
For basic police procedures and tactics, it was drilled into us rookies to always make sure the scene is safe before you enter and attempt any investigation, victim rescue or criminal apprehension. Thus, there should be grave concern when responding to a suspected chemical suicide event.
A chemical suicide, also referred to as a “detergent suicide”, is defined as an individual’s self-inflicted death by mixing various chemicals designed to release deadly fumes in an enclosed space, like a vehicle, closet, bathroom or any small confined area. What makes this method so easy for the suicidal person to attempt is the fact that the chemicals needed for this concoction are not exotic made or hard to obtain laboratory substances, but every day household cleaning ingredients. For example, mixing hydrochloric acid with lime sulfur creates potentially lethal hydrogen sulfide gas. Some of these culprit chemicals are found in certain insecticides and toilet bowl cleansers, readily purchased in the local hardware or grocery store.
Also, another potential killer gas, Chloramine gas, is created from mixing the common cleaning agents ammonia and bleach. Sadly, there have also been some deaths from the accidental mixing of these two ingredients by people doing ordinary cleaning in the home. This could be yet another mixture used by a depressed person attempting to end their life. Remember this safety tip and simple teaching tool of the letters A-B-C-D, signifying the mixture of: Ammonia & Bleach Causes Death!
The chemical suicide technique is believed to have begun in Japan, and in 2011 there was a New York Times article which reported over 2,000 Japanese citizens have taken their own lives via this procedure. Alarmingly, this chemical process seems to be a growing trend for suicide acts carried out in the United States as well. Its popularity is spreading because detailed instructions for this macabre undertaking can be found on the internet. Part of the novelty is that chemical suicides are advertised as a quick and relatively painless way to end your life. Yet, medical experts would disagree and cite the ingestion of hydrogen sulfide and hydrogen cyanide vapors as a particularly brutal death, similar to drowning. Alas, the suicidal party may not be the only victim; innocent family members, neighbors and the first responders are at risk at these locations too. Literally, one wrong breath inhaling these gases could kill you.
What should a first responder look for at a suspected chemical suicide event, and what are some procedures responding police, fire and EMS can use to prevent injury or death? Again, first and foremost, ask yourself “Is the scene safe?” For example, you’re an officer on patrol and are given the assignment to check the well being of the “sleeping” or unconscious male sitting in a car in a deserted parking lot. You locate the vehicle and a witness nearby who found the car and unconscious person inside. The witness is complaining of minor irritation of the eyes, nose and throat (these are common symptoms of contact with the chemicals involved), and he noted a foul smell coming from the car. Depending on the amount of exposure to the hazardous materials a person encounters at the scene, other complaints may be headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, coughing and difficulty breathing. You now get the witness out of the vicinity of the suspicious vehicle, call for medical assistance for them, and try to safely access the scene yourself.
The smell of rotten eggs may be present. This usually indicates the presence of hydrogen sulfide, or there is the odor of bitter or burnt almonds, which could indicate hydrogen cyanide, both of which are colorless in gases. You may or may not smell these odors; a percentage of the population is immune to it. In some past dealings of this kind, homemade warning signs were found on the vehicle window, on the dashboard, or taped on a bathroom door noting the intention of a suicidal act. These warning signs are for the first responders to read and note the use of the volatile chemical mixture and deadly gases, and to alert the fire department HazMat team, etc. But there are no guarantees that the incident you respond to will have the luxury of a warning sign. In the local suicide scene I mentioned earlier, no sign was posted.
Instinct vs. Safety
In law enforcement, our first instinct is to save lives. In a situation like this, as we view the unresponsive victim sitting in the vehicle, we must be aware of our own wellbeing and consider the circumstances carefully. Someone who commits a chemical suicide properly will be dead in a very short time. Another clue to look for is victims may have the seatbelt on to prevent their body from falling on to the horn, which could alert someone to try and rescue them. Some cases reported victims wearing goggles and gloves to prevent painful chemical burns when mixing the agents. You may also observe empty household cleaning containers that include the acid and sulfur ingredients on the car seat or floorboard. Also, look for containers with a purple colored cap. This may indicate a Bonide pesticide product, commonly used in these cases. One or more large buckets could be present to mix the substances, or the glove compartment box or center console can be used. Tools may be observed to stir the mixture, like a cane or stick. Evidence of chemical suicides also includes a yellow-green or a white colored residue, which could be on the car seat, in the buckets or mixing location, or on the dashboard, and the windows could be fogged or tinted with a yellow-green film. Duct tape could be used to seal the car’s air vents, or around a room’s door frame, trapping the fumes in the enclosed space.
As discussed, there is serious concern for danger at a suspected chemical suicide scene. The general rule is to use extreme caution and look for some of the indicators that could alert you to the potential of a chemical suicide. Keep your distance, stay upwind, if indoors-get to fresh air, secure the area, deny entry and call for the subject matter experts to handle it and most of all, do not become a “blue canary”.
Brian P. Haughton is a Corporal and 21-year veteran with the Philadelphia Police Department. He spent seven years in the patrol division and eight years as an officer on the department’s full-time SWAT unit and worked as a sniper and EMT-B on the team. He is currently assigned as an instructor at the Police Academy teaching EVOC and vehicle pursuits to in-service officers and recruits, as well as other classes such as Terrorism, Hazardous Materials and Barricade/Hostage Situations. He serves on the SWAT Reserve Team, and worked several years with the department’s Major Incident Response Team, for response to CBRN operations. He holds an MS degree in Public Safety Management, with a Homeland Security concentration from Saint Joseph’s University. He also teaches Undergraduate college courses in Criminal Justice and provides instruction with Techline Technologies, Inc. in tactical medical procedures for first responders.