Chemical suicides have figured prominently throughout history, mostly in the form of cyanide poisoning. High ranking members of the Third Reich — Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Göring among them — used cyanide capsules to evade a hangman's noose. Members of the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam wore cyanide vials around their necks with the intent of ingesting their contents if captured by government officials.
But within recent years a cheaper and more easily effected means of chemical suicide has emerged: hydrogen sulfide (H2S).
Easily produced through the mixing of common laundry detergents, hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs in low concentrations. At higher levels, the colorless and flammable gas can irritate mucous membranes and cause headaches, dizziness, and even memory loss. When concentrated at 50-400 ppm, H2S can induce coughing, breathlessness, nausea, vertigo, and vomiting. At 700 ppm, two breaths can cause immediate death.
Since 2007, Japan has experienced a statistical spike in chemical suicides using hydrogen sulfide, with some 500 people choosing to end their lives using the gas in the first six months of 2008 alone.
Domestically, there have been relatively few instances of chemical suicides. But the presence of online "how-to" manuals and growing numbers of U.S. incidents suggest that may soon change:
2008: Two cases.
2009: Nine cases.
2010: 36 — a four-fold increase over the previous year.
As of mid February, there had already been 14 H2S suicides in the United States, a pace that suggests a conservative projection of more than 80 chemical suicides by year's end.
More ominously, these numbers may tell only part of the story.
"The problem that we have at this point is the variations in protocol between law enforcement, fire, and EMS agencies. There is no single central reporting location for all three agencies to report to," notes Oreshan. "The actual numbers may be higher."
By default, Oreshan has found himself something of a clearing house for such data.
"People across the country reach out to me whenever they hear about one," he says. "I try to do a personal follow-up with every location that has one."
To get education and training out to first responders, Oreshan has reached out to the national Hazmat Fusion Center and LEO centers. He hopes an ancillary benefit will be the eventual establishment of a more linear system of reporting.
In the meantime and whatever the numbers, the risks of such incidents have significant implications for EMS workers.
Recipe for Disaster
Oreshan notes that there haven't yet been any known first responder fatalities as a direct result of exposure to hazardous materials or chemical assaults associated with chemical suicides. But he also believes it is only a matter of time as first responders continue to put themselves at risk. Upward of 90 percent of all officers involved in such incidents are treated at hospitals in their aftermath-largely as a result of their own actions.
Oreshan hates to think what might have happened had some of these first responders not had the benefit of prior warnings from the suicidal subjects.
James Simmerman, director of Training for the Saline County (Mo.) Criminal Justice Training Center, worries that some suicides "may not be a fan of the police" and not be concerned with first responder safety when they plan on killing themselves with poison gas.