Pennsylvania Man Dies From "Detergent Suicide"

Kennett Square man used a deadly mixture to create hydrogen sulfide.


KATHLEEN BRADY SHEA, The Philadelphia Inquirer | | Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A 30-year-old Kennett Square man used a deadly mixture to create hydrogen sulfide inside his vehicle and end his life Monday, authorities said.

The man, who has not been identified by police, became the first reported Chester County victim of a method of suicide being reported "with alarming frequency," said Tom Glass, the county's hazardous materials coordinator.

Glass said the practice of creating this type of gas originated in Japan in 2008 but has been used increasingly in the United States. In March, similar incidents were found in Bucks and Lehigh Counties, he said.

It has been called "detergent suicide" because the chemicals often come from household cleaners.

The car was in a field off East Hillendale Road at Virginia Place in Pennsbury Township. The victim was thought to have combined an acid with a sulfur substance to produce the toxic gas.

Hydrogen sulfide, which creates a smell like rotten eggs, is not harmful in low amounts, but longer-term exposure can cause eye irritation, headache, and fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. When the mixture is more concentrated, the gas becomes fatal and a few breaths can cause death.

The gas occurs naturally, in natural gas, volcanic gases, and hot springs. It can also result from bacterial breakdown of organic matter and can be produced by industrial activities.

The gas is clear, so rescue workers would be unaware of it until opening a car door.

Eric Stratton of the Hampden County (Mass.) Sheriff's Department has written training materials for rescue workers. He said he began tracking cases across the country about a year ago.

"There's definitely been an increase," he said.

Jack Lewis, a Pennsylvania State Police spokesman, said Clandestine Laboratory Response teams have been trained to deal with "detergent suicides" since they were reported in Japan. He said police were called to a Bethlehem apartment in March for a suicide involving hydrogen sulfide.

Published reports, which detail incidents from California to New Jersey, indicate that victims typically post warning signs in the vehicle - as the Kennett Square man did - so that those approaching are not endangered.

Stratton said at least 500 Japanese citizens took their lives in the first half of 2008 by following instructions posted on websites. He said the Internet has helped the information spread.

"It does not appear that these people are trying to harm anyone but themselves," said Raymond Hackman, the coordinator of the Bucks County Hazardous Materials Incident Response Team.

Hackman said his crew was prepared for the case that surfaced on St. Patrick's Day because of notices issued by the CDC and the FBI. In addition, he said, his counterparts from each of the five counties have been meeting and training together since 1999.

He said it was important to let experts deal with a potential hazard, adding, "If you see a note on the car door, heed the warning and don't open it."

In Chester County, Glass said emergency workers were on the scene for 61/2 hours.

The first team that approached the vehicle operated as a reconnaissance unit, taking photographs and identifying the hazard through "visible observations," Glass said. He said workers, in protective suits with breathing apparatus, were limited to 20 minutes at the scene for their protection. Subsequent teams removed the chemicals and used a positive-pressure ventilator to force air into the vehicle, expediting the ventilation process so the body could be removed.

Glass said the apparatus, which resembles an industrial fan, was supplied by the Longwood Fire Company, which often uses it to remove smoke from buildings.

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