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THMG013 – Chemical Suicide


In this episode, Mike and Bob discuss the topic of chemical suicide and the techniques used by emergency services to mitigate and keep ourselves safe.

Complete Show Notes

5:00 Background on Chemical Suicide

  • Started in Japan back in the 1970s and 80s and really took off in the United States over the last few years
  • Basically refers to taking chemicals and using them to commit suicide

6:10 How People Are Using Asphyxiates

  • People are using simple asphyxiates – these can either push oxygen out (CO2) or eat the oxygen (rusting)
  • Oxygen is displaced, which leads to death
  • Done using an exit bag, which is basically a garbage bag put over the head and tightly fastened at the neck – people connect a hose to the bag and breathe in chemicals as oxygen is being displaced simultaneously

7:45 Simple Asphyxiates

  • Common chemicals used for simple asphyxiation include:
    • Helium – sold in any party store; non-flammable
    • Nitrogen – easy to obtain through gas companies; non-flammable
    • CO2 – can be purchased at a beverage dealer or dry ice retailer; non-flammable
    • Natural or propane gas – flammable; can be dangerous because nobody is there to turn off the gas source
  • Chemical suicide is safe for first responders and hazmat personnel because it’s lighter than air and non-flammable

11:50 Chemical Asphyxiates

  • Inhibits the person from using the available oxygen that’s already in the bloodstream and flowing through the body
  • A common chemical used for this purpose is carbon monoxide, which is very dangerous and often misunderstood

14:15 Detergents and Hydrogen Sulfide

  • People mix chemicals together to get a reaction and then breathe in that gas
  • The most common chemical used for detergent suicide is hydrogen sulfide
  • Hydrogen sulfide is a chemical asphyxiate that enters the body through the respiratory system; damage occurs at the cellular level
  • 80% of hydrogen sulfide suicides have hurt hazmat personnel, police officers, first responders, etc.
  • 700-800 PPM or greater can cause loss of consciousness and cardiopulmonary arrest – periodic, short-term exposures show little evidence of long-term effects
  • NIOSH rating – at 100 PPM, hydrogen sulfide is ILDH (immediately dangerous to life or health)
  • Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas with an odor of rotten eggs – olfactory nerve fatigue occurs within 2-15 minutes
  • Highly flammable and explosive between 4-45% – may travel to a source of ignition and flash back; burns to produce sulfur dioxide

22:15 Other Chemical Suicide Methods

  • Hydrogen cyanide is another popular method of chemical suicide, but its ingredients are much harder to come by
  • Hydrogen cyanide gas is created when you combine an acid source and a cyanide salt like potassium cyanide, sodium cyanide, etc.
  • Kills victims via inhalation by inhibiting cellular respiration – brain shuts down the heart before shutting itself down
  • Hurts first responders – ILDH at 1200 PPM; always use SCBA and bunker gear

25:30 Dangers of Chemical Detergents to First Responders

  • Poisonous and flammable gasses in small spaces (bathrooms, cars, closets, etc.) – not likely to be flammable, but you should always err on the side of caution
  • Bunker gear and SCBA is a must – bunker gear protects against flames and SCBA protects your lungs
  • Don’t turn anything on in the area that could produce a spark until flammability has been ruled out
  • Ventilation is a must for both flammability and toxicity

30:10 What Can We Do Right Away?

  • Break a window or two to create cross ventilation
  • Unlock cars and open them up if that’s where the victim is
  • Use fans or hydraulically vent the area
  • Remember that this is a crime scene, so it’s important not to destroy the area or make a mess
  • Operate as normal, but get in and out as quickly as possible
  • Always listen to your meters, as per usual

32:15 Inhalation Dangers for Hazmat Techs

  • Always have your SCBA
  • Once the victim is rescued, start trying to revive them – dangerous because your gear can off-gas after the rescue is over
  • Take your gear off first and make sure you’re doing the proper decon procedures – hold your breath after removing your SCBA
  • The victim will also be off-gassing, so they’ll need to be metered and monitored the entire way
  • Decon victim by immediately removing their clothing
  • If the victim is viable, they’ll be transported in the back of the ambulance – make sure the windows are open and a meter is running for hydrogen sulfide
  • Very little chance that you’ll encounter booby traps since the victim is usually only looking to hurt themselves

37:15 How Can We Recognize Chemical Suicide?

  • Tape, signs and placards (they’ll often tell you what they used), and sometimes a suicide note
  • Just because there’s a note doesn’t mean it was a chemical attempt
  • Inventory pesticides, cleaning supplies, paint, etc. – usually what they used will be next to them
  • You may be able to detect an odor – hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs, and hydrogen cyanide smells like bitter almonds; mask up if you smell anything
  • Kick triage – if the victim doesn’t respond to a kick, they’re probably dead – this may sound morbid, but it’s important to move quickly

41:30 How Do We Proceed?

  • Use scene size-up and situational awareness – APIE model
  • You need to know the location, whether other people were affected, the time of day, etc.
  • It’s also important to have the knowledge you need to go in and perform a safe rescue
  • Ensure the area is secure, that other people are safe, and that evidence is preserved (if it’s a crime scene)
  • Make sure you’re ventilating the area with a fan, but never pull product through the fan – this is the best way to break down the vapors
  • Be mindful of the wind when you open a window – will it make the situation better or worse?
  • Turn off the HVAC system so the chemical doesn’t circulate – do this remotely if at all possible to avoid spark

46:45 Metering and Rescue

  • Always have a LEL meter – you don’t want to waste time figuring out which chemical it is
  • Knowing the chemical doesn’t change the rescue operation, but it’s important to make sure it isn’t flammable
  • Metering should continue in the ambulance, and maybe even in the hospital
  • Victim is contaminated and exposed – don’t perform mouth-to-mouth or mouth-to-mask
  • Don’t let your emotions play a role or impair your ability to act safely – you aren’t responsible for the victim’s actions
  • Get in and get out; spend most of your air on getting decontaminated or working on the patient
  • If you see something that bothers you, talk to someone; if you’re exposed, get medical treatment
  • Early symptoms of exposure associated with lower doses include restlessness, increased respiratory rate, giddiness, headache, palpitations, and difficulty breathing
  • Symptoms that may develop later with lower doses or acutely with higher doses include vomiting, convulsions, respiratory failure, arrhythmia, unconsciousness, and death

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