Chemical suicide is a growing and alarming trend in the United States, and it poses a risk for more than just the intended victim. Law enforcement officers acting as first responders also are in jeopardy, making it vital for them to know the warning signs in order to protect themselves and their communities.
Also known as toxic or detergent suicide, chemical suicide is carried out by combining acidic household cleaners with those containing sulfide in an enclosed environment. So, for instance, a suicidal person would take an item such as disinfectant, toilet bowl cleaner, or drain cleaner and mix it with dandruff shampoo, pesticides, or fungicides. The heat-releasing reaction produces hydrogen sulfide gas, which is highly flammable and toxic. If inhaled in high concentrations, the gas can cause suffocation.
Chemical suicide first surfaced in Japan about 2007 and quickly spread to this country. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office in Eastern Ohio responded to a chemical suicide in December, luckily without harm to deputies or the public.
An Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy course, Hazmat and WMD Awareness for the First Responder, covers how law enforcement should respond to these and other hazmat situations.
When dispatched to a scene, it’s important to recognize whether you have a hazmat situation. Common places to commit chemical suicide are small interior bathrooms or vehicles. Any small, confined space can be turned into a chemical suicide chamber. In the Carroll County case, a caller reported that a disabled car was on his property. Signs on the car’s windows stated, “Call the police” and “Call hazmat.”
While it is important to manage the situation immediately, do not rush in and risk harm to yourself. Try to identifythe hazard and the harm it can cause, all while considering your own safety.
If you are responding to a disabled vehicle, for example, it may be difficult to see inside the car because hydrogen sulfide gas may create condensation or frost on the car’s windows. If you do have visibility, determine whether the driver is unresponsive.
Look around the vehicle for empty cleaning product containers. Also look for a bucket or open cooler, since suicide victims often combine the products in larger containers to create a high concentration of the gas. Sometimes they cover openings such as air vents or line door seals with duct or electrical tape. You also may smell sulfur, in which case you should quickly move away from the area.
Next, you should isolate the area to prohibit public access. Finally, notify your dispatcher or designated command post about the hazmat problem. Give as many specific details about the scene as possible, including weather conditions, exact location, and victim’s condition.
At all times, remember the incident command system if your department has one in place. Otherwise, brief the in-command officer once he or she arrives at the scene.
And, just as with other hazmat situations, always remember your own safety first.
Morgan A. Linn
Assistant Attorney General and Legal Analyst