You see a car in a deserted area of a parking lot and you happen to notice signs: “DANGER – DON’T OPEN THE DOOR – CALL 9 -1-1!!!” You are thinking to yourself, what could this be?!?! A word to the wise…back away quickly and call 9-1-1…you may have just stumbled upon the latest Japanese trend to come to the U.S. – detergent or chemical auto suicide.
Ten chemical suicides in cars occurred in the United States from 2006 to 2011, according to a report by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The victims mixed various household chemicals and cleaners to produce toxic gases inside a car, and died from inhaling the fumes. A CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR 2011;60:1189-90) noted an upward trend in chemical suicides in automobiles: One occurred in 2006, one in 2007, four in 2009, and four in 2010. But the report notes that there is no way of knowing the true numbers. A chemical suicide case was defined as suicide or attempted suicide using mixed chemicals in an automobile.
The 10 incidents, which occurred in Connecticut, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Utah, and Washington, resulted in 9 deaths. One person began the attempt but then aborted the action. Four rescue personnel were also affected. Two experienced respiratory irritation, but symptom data were not available for the other two, Ms. Anderson and her colleagues noted.
In addition to household cleaners, the victims used an assortment of chemicals, including ammonium hydroxide, aluminum oxide, hydrochloric acid, potassium ferrocyanide, sodium hypochlorite, sulfur, sulfuric acid, and trichloroethylene.
The victims for whom an exact age was available ranged from 22 to 69 years. No exact ages were available for four victims, but two were younger than 18 years and two were older than 18, the report said. Most victims (7) were male.
This suicide method kills quickly, with one good, deep lung-full of hydrogen disulfide there is almost immediate loss of consciousness and cessation of heart and brain activity within minutes. However, the fumes will linger in an enclosed space, endangering emergency personnel who move into a scene without following proper hazardous material protocol.
Because of its effectiveness, most victims are dead by the time emergency responders arrive, so the biggest concern is protecting emergency responders. If a victim is alive at the scene, decontamination is necessary before resuscitation can begin. “This consists of off-gassing the patient by getting them out of their clothing and running a fan over them,” he said. While there is no antidote for hydrogen disulfide poisoning, cyanide poisoning can be treated with hydroxocobalamin.
Signs of a chemical suicide include:
- Rotten-egg smell around the car.
- Any enclosed space that can contain gas.
- If the person looks dead in the car, has locked the doors, and if the windows are taped closed.
- A car that is not running and that is parked in the open – not in the garage – and printed signs taped to the inside of the car windows. These could be biohazard signs or notes warning emergency responders of toxic gases.
This is not a spontaneous suicide. This method takes lots of planning and preparation to plan the act, secure the materials and then plot a course of action.