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H2S IS A GAS

larry.burden@rcmp-grc.gc.ca


June 20, 2012
By Larry Burden

1834 words – MR

Hydrogen sulfide suicides a new concern for police

by Larry Burden

You are dispatched to investigate a report of an unconscious person slumped over a steering wheel. Opening the door, you notice a bucket on the floor filled with what looks like powdered chemicals, smell rotten eggs – and draw your last breath. The driver had committed suicide using Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S)gas.

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Most suicide methods pose little threat to first responders but we now face an alarming new trend that can quickly kill a police officer or EMT who unknowingly opens the door to a vehicle or apartment filled with H2S.

Although well known in industries such as sewer maintenance, natural gas and even farming and aquaculture, few Canadian police officers outside of Alberta are aware of its occupational hazards. It is so dangerous that industries who deal with it have mandatory occupational training.

New Brunswick RCMP recently responded to the provinces’ first H2S suicide (the second known in Canada). Fortunately the victim posted warning signs on the vehicle advising anyone approaching that there was poisonous gas present and to contact Hazmat.

Had the victim not done so the citizen who discovered the vehicle and the first police officer on the scene could have been seriously injured or even killed by inhaling the gas.

Google hydrogen sulfide suicide or search for it on YouTube and you will find plenty of information about this new method of committing suicide. There are videos showing how to make it along with postings from suicidal people asking how they can kill themselves with it. Sadly, people answer telling them how to do it.

Several online articles describe how the trend began in Japan in 2007 when the recipe for “detergent suicides” began circulating on the Internet. The result – more than 220 men, women and children killed themselves (or tried to) within six months. The death toll included family members who tried to save the victim and were overcome by the gas.

The methodology quickly spread to the United States and incidents of H2S suicides began popping up in August and December 2008 in California, Georgia and Florida. It has since spread to the US, England and Canada.

H2S can pose other problems to first responders when it is used in populated places such as an apartment building, noted Jennifer Adkins in a 2010 Regional Organized Crime Information Center publication ().

In one incident, a young Japanese girl killed herself in her apartment using H2S, causing 90 other occupants to become sick as the gas dissipated throughout the building. H2S has even become a terrorist concern. The “Mujahideen poisons handbook” by Abdel-Aziz describes how to make the gas.

H2S is classified as a “broad spectrum” poison that affects several systems within the human body. It is five times more toxic than carbon monoxide and similar in nature to hydrogen cyanide in that it bonds with iron and prevents cellular respiration.

{Serious fire risk}

Not only is it toxic, it is heavier than air and highly flammable. H2S can be ignited at only 260C/500F; to put that in perspective, a cigarette burns at 649C/1200F. When mixed with air (i.e. opening the car door) the gas has the ability to spread a long distance and can be ignited, causing a flashback.

Although it has a distinct “rotten egg” smell, high concentrations can cause olfactory fatigue, causing you to lose your ability to smell. Unfortunately there is no proven antidote for H2S poisoning. Current treatments consist of support to respiratory and cardiovascular functions.

Low exposure is not likely to cause any long term health issues. Moderate and serious exposure may cause residual problems such as respiratory issues. Serious exposure resulting in coma or convulsion may damage the heart and brain.

Hydrogen sulfide can easily be made by mixing commonly found chemicals located under many kitchen sinks. The two primary ingredients are an acid based product (toilet bowl cleansers, acidic based drain cleaners or acids such as muriatic or sulfuric) and sulfur based compounds (detergents, pesticides).

Low concentrations (0 -10 ppm) will cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat; moderate concentrations (10-50 ppm) will cause headaches, dizziness, coughing and breathing difficulties, nausea and vomiting; high concentrations (50-100 ppm) can cause severe eye damage.

At 100–150 ppm the olfactory nerve is paralyzed and the sense of smell disappears. A concentration of 320-530 ppm causes a pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs) and the loss of breathing function. Half of people die within five minutes of exposure to concentrations of 800 ppm. More than 1,000 ppm causes an immediate collapse and loss of breathing after only one breath.

The threat to the safety of first responders cannot be overstated. Someone will die unless we change how we do things. The days of walking up to a vehicle and simply opening the door to check on an unconscious occupant are over; personal safety is a must.

Do not rely on your standard issue gas mask. The PC4 gas mask with the FR64 canister is not recommended for a Haz-Mat response to H2S, according to S/Sgt. Ron Matthews, NCO i/c of the RCMP National CBRNE Training Unit.

The canister does offer limited protection, as outlined by 3M Technical Data Bulletin #153, and should only be used in emergencies and for escape. Matthews suggests that, without proper training and knowing exactly what you’re dealing with, you let Haz-Mat take the lead in determining proper PPE for Chem/Bio/Rad incidents.

H2S can leech out of a car or room where it was released and pose a threat. For example, in October 2010 a Florida State Trooper was hospitalized simply because he touched the car door with his bare hands while investigating a H2S suicide. The vehicle had such a high concentration of the gas inside that it emitted the smell of sulfur and rotten eggs. Another police officer was hospitalized in St. Petersburg, Florida after inhaling gas from a suicide vehicle.

H2S suicides don’t only occur in vehicles. Residents at an Indiana University dormitory noticed a chemical smell in 2010. A search located a dead student inside a closet with a bucket of H2S and authorities evacuated 90 residents. A similar event occurred in Toronto in May 2009 when a woman used H2S to kill herself in the bathroom of her residence.

{Don’t be a hero}

First responders in “hero mode” intent on rushing in to make a rescue may need to be rescued themselves. As Dean Scoville noted in “of the 72 chemical suicides in the U.S. since 2008, 80 per cent have resulted in injuries to first responders.”

Look for the unusual at a scene. So far most H2S suicide victims have posted warning signs on their vehicles – some web sites even provide downloadable signs – but not all suicide victims are that considerate.

A 35 year old North Carolina woman didn’t post warning signs and exposed several first responders to a chemical mixture prepared in a bucket in her car. Signs can fall off, blow away or not be visible in the dark.

Dealing with these cases requires diligence on the part of everyone from dispatchers to investigators. Call takers should ask about warning signs or the presence of odours such as rotten eggs or almonds when receiving calls about unconscious people in vehicles. They should warn the caller to let police handle the matter and not approach or enter any vehicle or room. These details need to be passed on immediately to first responders so they know they may not be dealing with carbon monoxide poisoning.

It takes approximately half a gallon each of the acid and sulfide to produce a lethal amount of gas so first responders should look for containers for liquid inside and outside the car.

Other things to watch for:

  • Can you smell rotten eggs? Look at the victim; are they conscious or unresponsive? What colour is their skin tone? Is their chest rising?

  • Do not open the door in an attempt to wake an unconscious victim. Instead shout from a safe distance or use a loud hailer. Look for warning signs in or near the vehicle which may be obscured by condensation or vapours. Note the wind speed and direction and evacuate nearby buildings if necessary.

  • If a chemical substance is suspected or confirmed, follow your agency policy regarding hazardous materials protocols and advise the area Haz-Mat team.

  • Look for tape around the doors and windows. In the New Brunswick case the victim taped all door seals, including the driver door, so that the tape attached when it was closed from the inside.

  • Look for containers of household cleaning supplies and buckets containing chemical mixtures.

“Persons exposed to hydrogen sulfide pose no serious risks of secondary contamination to personnel outside of the hot zone,” according to an ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry) bulletin. “However personnel could be secondarily contaminated by contacting or breathing vapours from clothing heavily soaked with hydrogen sulfide-containing solution.”

In the New Brunswick case the victim’s clothing wasn’t soaked with any solution but the odour of H2S was very pronounced and the Hazmat team had to strip the body in the hot zone. In addition, odours from the body permeated the double body bags and could not be transported in the body removal vehicle. Instead the body was secured in a hermetically sealed coffin brought to the hot zone.

Although body bags are not recommended one can cover the body with a simple sheet while awaiting a proper covering.

Another concern is the possibility off gassing from the lungs when moving the victim.

{Copycats}

As H2S suicides become more known we can expect to see more of them. We should not publicize them because that will only lead to more copycats such as occurred in England in March 2011. A couple who met on the Internet chose to kill themselves the same way a couple in Essex England had done five months before.

Publicity about H2S can also increase the awareness about the hazards associated to this gas and become a new threat to first responders or investigators in the form of flash bomb booby traps. The potential for staged H2S suicides that are actually homicides present further challenges for law enforcement.

We need to recognize that this is a growing global problem for first responders and act now to amend our investigative policies and training procedures.

{References}

Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology (London, England), Japanese experience of hydrogen sulfide: the suicide craze in 2008

Kansas City Regional TWE www.kctew.org

Chemical & Detergent Suicides, Hampden County (MA) Sheriff’s Department

Central Florida Intelligence Exchange, Intelligence Bulletin Oct. 2010

Regional Organized Crime Information Center – Special Research Report – Hydrogen Sulfide Suicide

Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR)

Toronto Police Officer Safety Bulletin No. 42/2009

Police Magazine, “Chemical Suicides” Dean Scoville, April 2011

bio

Larry Burden is a sergeant with the RCMP.


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