'Detergent Suicide': Deadly Fad Rattles Japan

New, dangerous suicide method endangers passers-by and rescuers.

November 05, 2008, 8:20 AM

May 21, 2008 — -- Japan's recent series of suicides took a new twist Thursday.

A 34-year-old man tried to kill himself by drinking pesticide. He was rushed to a hospital in southern Japan, where workers feverishly pumped his stomach, trying to save his life.

The man vomited--and that released toxic fumes which sickened more than 50 people, including doctors, patients and hospital workers.

The man later died.

90 hospital personnel had to be called in to help with the emergency Wednesday night, said Tomoko Nagao, spokeswoman for the Red Cross Kumamoto Hospital in southern Japan.

The man's toxic vomit contained Chloropicrin a highly volatile pesticide with a pungent odor that can cause breathing difficulties and sometimes death when inhaled in large amounts.

Seishi Takamura, a doctor who treated the farmer, said he could not stop coughing after inhaling the fumes, which smelled like chlorine, Kyodo News agency reported.

A different kind of toxic gas suicide has made headlines recently across the country. More than 130 people have killed themselves by mixing store-bought detergent and chemicals.

The volunteer staff at the Suicide Prevention Center in Tokyo spent this year's "golden week" holidays in early May taking calls from those who wanted to kill themselves.

"We set up a special hot line during golden week this year," said Yuzou Kato, the director of the center, referring to the popular annual bash of four national holidays packed into a single week. "We wanted to put a stop to the increasing number of gas suicides, which have been spreading all over Japan."

The Japanese epidemic of suicides has become particularly lethal in the last year with the introduction of a new method: mixing store-bought detergents and chemicals to create toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. The gas almost always kills and sometimes the victims of the poisonous fumes are passers-by or rescue personnel.

Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Agency said 145 such suicide cases have been reported in the last few months, killing 136 and injuring 188 others. Kato said many callers had started to talk about this gas method in the last year.

"This is fairly a new method of suicide, and people seem to learn about it through the Internet," Kato said. "What is scary about this type of suicide is the powerful gas fumes can easily kill passers-by and rescuers. As they try to kill themselves with this type of gas, they can easily kill innocent people."

Early this month in northern Japan, about 350 neighbors had to seek shelter at a nearby school playground as a 24-year-old man mixed the concoction in his house and killed himself. The man died and his mother, who tried to help him, inhaled the gas and became unconscious.

Last month, the Peninsula Tokyo hotel had to evacuate guests from a few floors as one of their guests attempted suicide by generating hydrogen sulfide in his hotel room.

Firefighters who tried to rescue the man found a few bottles of detergent and chemicals -- all of which can be purchased at stores. The man also left a note on a chair in his room warning of the toxic gas in his room.

Japan already has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The number of suicides reached 30,000 in 1998 and has not gone below that number for nine consecutive years.

The Japanese government has made suicide a national concern.

According to a recent survey by the Cabinet Office, one in five Japanese adults has considered suicide. Last year, the government published its first white paper on suicide prevention and vowed to cut the number of suicides by 20 percent in 10 years. It also committed roughly $220 million for anti-suicide programs to help those with depression and other mental health conditions.

The Japan Association of Chain Drug Stores asked its 190 members to voluntarily suspend the sales of detergents and chemicals that can be used for suicides.

The National Police Agency has designated Web sites showing how to mix the chemicals as a source of "harmful information" and has asked Internet providers to delete sites or pages that contain such information.

It said many people seem to obtain information on how to die with the gas through the Internet. More than 50 Web sites included instructions on how to create the poisonous gas.

"Deleting sites or information from the Internet does not lead to a long-term solution," said Mafumi Usui, a psychology professor at Niigata Seiryo University. "You can tell them to ban the word 'suicide' from the Internet, but people will find a way to use that word, maybe by substituting another word to mean suicide."

Usui, who has been studying suicides in Japan, said young people tend to use the poisonous gas method because many want "an easy and less painful way to die," which Usui calls a misconception.

"It may be easy to mix up the chemicals but it does not necessarily kill you easily," he said. "There is absolutely no easy way to die."

Usui said what many of those who attempt suicide are seeking is not necessarily death but a solution to their problems.

"It may be bullying, it may be loneliness, they may simply have a hard time finding a purpose in life," said Usui. "That does not mean they want to die but they choose death because they cannot find a solution to their problems. I think that is part of why they want an easy and less painful method. They do not necessarily want to die, but if they have to die, they do not want to suffer and they do not want to look gross or ugly."

While the authorities grapple with the nation's high rate of suicides and try to eliminate information on how to die, one man is trying to stop suicide by offering people tips on how to live.

"When you Google the word suicide, it shows all those Web sites and chat rooms that show you how to kill one's self," said Ryuichi Okita, CEO of Posi-media in Tokyo, a company that tackles social issues including suicides. "But no one shows you how you can solve life issues, which can give you an option to live."

A 31-year-old owner of a design company, Okita said he once suffered depression.

"I did not necessarily want to die but I certainly wanted to disappear," said Okita. "I wanted to disappear from everything. I luckily managed to come up with a few solutions or alternatives to suicide such as returning to my hometown. If you can find one solution or alternative, you may realize that death is not your only option for a way out."

Building on that notion, Okita created a Web site in March 2007 called Ikiteku (techniques on living) that shows survival tips from people who once were on the brink of committing suicide.

The Web site shows an archive of personal accounts that are divided into eight circumstances such as "bullying," "violence," "personal debts" and "sickness." Under each category are the stories of people who have experience in those fields and their solutions to life issues.

The site shows more than 200 entries so far. It also shows survival techniques broken into seven categories that include changing circumstances, a job or residence and learning about legal protections available to those in debt.

"Why don't we help people find ways to solve their issues instead of telling them not to die," said Okita. "Emphasizing the importance of life may not really help someone when that person will have to face a debt collector the next morning."

Okita realizes this may not be a panacea for suicides. He also knows what may have worked for one person does not necessarily apply to another. "But by showing as many examples as possible, people can choose a solution they like," said Okita whose goal is to cut the current number of suicide by 25 percent in 18 months.

The Web site now has more than 100,000 visitors a day. Although Okita finds this number "encouraging," he feels his work is not over yet.

"Many people do not know there are alternatives to death," said Okita. "If our site can make them think a moment, it then could delay their action by one day. You never know what difference that one day can make."

"People may have a different view on life when they wake up next morning. They may be able to shift their focus from dying to living."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events