Chemical Suicides: Quick Death, But Public Health Hazard

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U.S. Agencies Monitor Suicide Trend That Began in Japan in 2008

Local, state and federal agencies including the Justice Department have been monitoring the cases, although none have released official tallies. They trace the U.S. incidents to rash of similar deaths in Japan, a country with high suicide rates. In March 2008, Miyuki Asou, a Japanese actress who had recently appeared in pornographic films, committed detergent suicide. In the first half of 2008, more than 500 other Japanese killed themselves with instructions easily accessible online. When a 14-year-old girl from Konan, Japan, committed detergent suicide in her bathroom, she inadvertently sickened 90 residents of an apartment building, demonstrating that chemical suicides pose public health hazards.

Whether they extinguish their lives in cars, or in college dormitories, apartments, homes or hotels, those who perish this way unwittingly endanger the lives of passersby or emergency response teams. After a laboratory worker killed himself in his pickup truck on Dec. 21, 2009, four Kansas City, Mo., firefighters and one of the man's relatives were taken to a hospital after exposure to hydrogen cyanide. He hadn't posted any warnings. Emergency operations and law enforcement agencies have scrambled to use such examples to educate employees about donning breathing masks and hazmat suits before getting close to chemical suicide sites.

One of the most recent U.S. cases occurred May 23 on a private street high in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles. That's where 23-year-old Ana Gutierrez of Culver City and a man whom authorities haven't publicly identified, acted out an apparent suicide pact, except that the man jumped from the car and survived, said Ed Winter, assistant chief of investigation for the L.A. Department of Coroner.

Winter rattled off at least four other local incidents, the first of which involved a 23-year-old man who on August 28, 2008, parked his VW Beetle behind a Pasadena shopping center, locked the doors and prepared a lethal formula. Hazmat crews evacuated the area before opening the car. In February 2010, a 20-year-old West Covina woman was found dead from hydrogen sulfide in the backseat of her car in a remote near Castaic. Also last year, a woman committed chemical suicide in a bathroom of a rented Venice beach house, after posting warning signs on the bathroom door.

"That lady, I believe, was determined," Winter said. "She was a chemical engineer, and so she knew what she was doing." Although emergency personnel first thought she had died from hydrogen sulfide exposure, she died from exposure to carbon monoxide, another colorless, lethal killer. Winter said a fourth chemical suicide took place last year in a Beverly Hills home.

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