Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dangerous Japanese ‘Detergent Suicide’ Technique Creeps Into U.S.

A suicide technique that mixes household chemicals to produce a deadly hydrogen sulfide gas became a grisly fad in Japan last year. Now it’s slowly seeping into the United States over the internet, according to emergency workers, who are alarmed at the potential for innocent causalities.

At least 500 Japanese men, women and children took their lives in the first half of 2008 by following instructions posted on Japanese websites, which describe how to mix bath sulfur with toilet bowl cleaner to create a poisonous gas. One site includes an application to calculate the correct portions of each ingredient based on room volume, along with a PDF download of a ready-made warning sign to alert neighbors and emergency workers to the deadly hazard.

The first sign that the technique was migrating to the United States came in August, when a 23-year-old California man was found dead in his car behind a Pasadena shopping center. The VW Beetle’s doors were locked, the windows rolled up and a warning sign had been posted in one of the windows. Police and firefighters evacuated the shopping crew before a hazmat crew in chemical suits extracted the body and began cleaning up the grisly scene.

Then in December, emergency workers responding to a call at Lake Allatoona in Bartow County, Georgia, found a similar scene. Inside the car — along with the body — were two buckets containing a yellow substance. A note on the window said "Caution" and identified the chemical compound by name.

Nobody connected the cases until last month, when a Texas surgeon realized that a new and dangerous suicide method was making the rounds. Dr. Paul Pepe, chief of emergency medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, warned emergency workers that they could become innocent casualties of the technique if they’re not careful. Other experts agree.

"The normal response for an EMS, is they’re going to break open the window," says August Vernon, assistant coordinator for the Forsyth County Office of Emergency Management, who was consulted by the Department of Homeland Security on the danger this week. "And that’s a pretty normal call: someone unconscious inside the car. Fortunately, those people left notes, which is pretty unusual and a good thing."

"Eventually," he adds, "someone isn’t going to leave a note."

The American version of the method substitutes a common insecticide for the bath sulfur used in the Japanese recipe; bath sulfur isn’t available in the United States. But the tweak does nothing to make the gas less dangerous for people nearby. In one of the Japanese cases last year, 90 residents in an apartment building were sickened when a 14-year-old girl used hydrogen sulfide (H2S) to take her life.

The so-called "detergent suicides" in Japan sparked considerable and ongoing interest on the Alt.Suicide Usenet groups, where people considering suicide share tips and tricks. This week, one depressed man wrote of his plan to release hydrogen sulfide gas in his car while driving, in the hope that he’ll lose consciousness and crash — making it look like an accident.

"I got the idea to use hydrogen sulfide poisoning by reading of the tremendous success (for lack of a better word) that the Japanese people have had with it," he wrote on Monday. "It is their most common suicide method. I understand that the method smells but I have found the stench of failure in my life as well."

When other newsgroup denizens pointed out the recklessness of his plan, he gave it up as too risky to innocent bystanders. After exploring other techniques, the man announced on Wednesday that he decided he’d rather live.

"With months of research I have discovered that there is no ‘easy’ or ‘painless’ or ‘quick’ way to die," he wrote. "So, from here on out I am going to pick up the pieces to my life! Maybe you should too."

(Top photo: A hazmat team responds to a chemical suicide near a Pasadena shopping center. Courtesy Terry Miller, Beacon Media News; Middle photo: Police officers in protective gear enter an apartment in Konan, southern Japan Thursday, April 24, 2008. A Japanese girl gassed herself to death by mixing laundry detergent with cleanser, releasing fumes that sickened 90
people in her apartment house. AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Read Similar Story

Fox News, The Daily-Tribune, Wired, Beacon Media News contributed to this post.