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Concerns grow as chemical suicides evolve

Chemical Assisted Suicide: Agent Review

Chemical assisted suicides continue to change and challenge emergency responders. Recent cases have demonstrated the ability to utilize various products and expand that challenge to health care facilities and providers. While we've focused much of our attention on Hydrogen Sulfide, cyanide and numerous other chemicals with high hazard potential have been used. For more, follow this link for background information on Chemical Assisted Suicide. In this series Mitigation Journal continues coverage of chemical suicide/blood agent suicide that began in 2008.

Recent Cases:
New York City - a man was found in a running car with an open bucket containing about 10 gallons of unknown chemicals. The car was parked near a "big box" home improvement store. We can only speculate based on media reports, that the open container of chemicals played a role in the death. This situation may have been one of many that mix various chemicals to form Hydrogen Sulfide.  

Boston - a woman ingested sodium azide and subsequently metabolized a form of Cyanide resulting in her death, causing the evacuation of the building and the quarantine of several responders.

Florida  - a man ingests a pesticide, malathion, and was transported to the hospital by EMS. The man vomits, exposing the ambulance crew and hospital providers to the effects of this organophosphate/cholinesterase inhibitor material. (see Are you ready for nerve agent exposure? Mitigation Journal)

The locations are different as are the chemicals used but, they're all part of a growing trend that poses extreme risks to civilians, responders and healthcare facilities.

Review of Chemicals
Various chemicals are used in suicide attempts and can include:
  • Simple Asphyxiants - carbon dioxide, methane, and propane - displace oxygen in an enclosed space, promoting asphyxiation and suffocation by causing an oxygen deficient atmosphere.
  • Systemic Asphxiants - carbon monoxide - exclude oxygen from the red blood cell by altering hemoglobin, decreasing the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood and resulting in hypoxia/hypoxemia .
  • Blood Agents - Cyanide/Cyanide forming compounds, Nitrates, and Sulphides. Hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogen chloride are major concerns. These materials interfere with cellular respiration and result in cellular hypoxia. Each of these products are toxic and can lead to rapid death. 
  • Choking Agents - Chlorine and Phosgene - stress the respiratory system and the respiratory tissues. Exposure to choking agents results in mechanical compromise as well the potential for chemical damage that may result in pulmonary edema. 
  • Consumer Level Hazardous Materials -  hydrogen peroxide, acetone, drain cleaners, and bleaches - can be combined to create toxic environments. Commercial pesticides may become contain hazards similar to chemical never agents.
Many drain cleaners contain sodium hypochlorite (bleach) and lye, an oxydizer/caustic. Chlorine (bleach) mixed with an acid creates chlorine gas and chlorine gas combined with ammonia results in chloramine gas. All of these materials are severe inhalation and contact hazard.

Many cases of chemical assisted suicide, sometimes described as detergent suicide, involve some form of bathroom cleaner (acid), pesticides (sulfur) , laundry detergent (chlorine), and in some cases bath salts (not the synthetic drug type). Hydrogen sulfide is created by combining acids and sulfides with other materials. There is usually some type of mixing container and empty chemical containers nearby.

In some instances, chemicals have been combined and created other materials that have resulted in differing signs and symptoms including those similar to nerve agent exposure with a similar toxidrome.

The details of the chemicals presented in this post are presented solely for the benefit of responders and health care providers. The intent is to increase the awareness to the growing threat of chemical suicide and Consumer Level Hazmat situations.

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