Chemical Suicides: Quick Death, But Public Health Hazard

PHOTO: Austin Mueller, 18, took this cellphone picture of himself the night before committing chemical suicide inside his car on the Southwestern Illinois College campus in Belleville. Mueller, who had struggled with depression since childhood, died from
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Austin Mueller would have turned 20 on June 15, but on that day, his grieving mother likely will relive the horrors of May 5, 2010, when her son brought a lifelong struggle with depression to a quiet coda by committing chemical suicide in a college parking lot.

Although he tried to hide his intentions from those closest to him, information left behind on a laptop revealed that Austin, a talented artist and astrophysics student in his second year at Southwestern Illinois College, had been planning his final exit for more than a year. Several Internet sites told him just what to do.

Ever meticulous, Austin left carefully worded signs on his car warning "Do not Open Vehicle. Danger. One Breath Can Render You Unconscious," his mother, Joyce Coulter of Wildwood, Mo., said. He even included his name, address, phone number and who should get his Teddy bears.

Austin had been depressed as early as age 4 or 5, when he told her, "Mom, I don't want to live life. It's just too hard." Then, around age 12, this prescient prediction: "I will never make it to the age of 20. This life just isn't for me."

And yet, he was an honor-roll student who confidently announced to his entire high school that he was gay, attended his prom with his boyfriend, and in his junior year wrote a paper (unfinished) about depression to "encourage other kids to get help," Coulter said. "He had all the right things in there. He knew all the right answers." However, in his own case, "he just could no longer fight it."

In a note from a previous suicide attempt, he had written: "If I go to hell for killing myself, it can't be worse than the hell I'm in."

Coulter takes her only comfort in the thought that after he curled up in the car with his favorite blanket and pillow, Austin brought an end to his pain. But what she cannot forgive are the anonymous people online who helped facilitate his efficient death. "He got the information on how to do this online. A person on the website was telling him, 'good luck.' I don't know how anybody could be like that."

His was the first "detergent suicide" that Belleville, Ill., authorities had seen, although they'd become aware of other Americans who deliberately killed themselves with toxic fumes from combining household cleaners and other chemicals in confined spaces.

For more than three years now, news reports have painted eerily similar tableaux: a man or woman slumped lifelessly over a steering wheel, windows up, doors locked, buckets or bottles of household chemicals nearby and homemade signs warning of poisonous gases inside. From San Diego to Siesta Key, Fla., at least 38 people have died after mixing up baneful brews that in most of the cases cloaked them in invisible clouds of hydrogen sulfide so concentrated that one whiff can kill. A few of them used similarly lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.

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