Chemical suicides become growing problem in Northwest

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by KING 5 News and Associated Press

KING5.com

Posted on October 2, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Updated Sunday, Oct 9 at 12:44 PM

Bremerton hazmat

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BREMERTON, Wash. – A hazmat team was called to a Bremerton church Sunday morning after a man apparently committed suicide in a vehicle and left a sign warning that hazardous materials were inside the truck.

Similar incidents, known as "chemical suicides," have become a growing problem in the Pacific Northwest during the past year. 

"I wouldn't call it an epidemic, but it is very, very prevalent," said Capt. Rich Christensen, who works for the Bellevue Fire Department and coordinates the Eastside hazmat team.

On Sunday morning, Pastor Sigi Helgeson discovered the 28-year-old man when she arrived at Family of God Lutheran Church around 8:20 a.m. to prepare for services. She saw an unfamiliar black pickup truck at the far side of the parking lot with a handwritten note taped to the window: "Danger!!! Deadly hydrogen sulfide gas. Do not open without hazmat team. One breath can kill."
   
She immediately called 911, prompting a large police and emergency response, said Kitsap County Sheriff's Deputy Scott Wilson. The man, who lived in East Bremerton, apparently committed suicide by inhaling a toxic gas in the cab of the truck.

He left a suicide note and had apparently purchased the material used to make the gas at a garden store in Lakewood, Wilson said.

A crew from Naval Base Kitsap was called in to decontaminate the body and the truck.  Authorities did not need to close surrounding roads or evacuate neighborhoods, but hazmat teams used caution and wore special suits when approaching the truck.

The Seattle Fire Department was called to a chemical suicide on the city's north side on Saturday, said spokesman Kyle Moore.

In Bellevue, crews have responded to four chemical suicides since May 2010.  Their first call was the 15th incident reported in the United States.  Their most recent call was two weeks ago in Duvall.  Once again, in that situation, the person who committed suicide posted a warning note on the vehicle window.  Hydrogen sulfide was found inside.

"One or two breaths is enough to be fatal," Christensen said.  "The gas itself is five times more toxic than carbon monoxide."

Flammability is another major concern for crews responding to these calls, Christensen said.

His crew advocates a cautious, yet rapid response in these situations. 

"Speed is everything," Christensen said.  "The patient has to get out of that environment as fast as possible and get respiratory support."

In Bremerton, the man who committed suicide could not be saved.  The hazmat team removed the body and treated it at a decontamination tent on site. Police were consulting with representatives of the state Department of Ecology to determine how to dispose of the truck.

Pastor Helgeson said a prayer for the man's family.  "Our heart just goes to the family," she said.  "I can only imagine what they're feeling right now."

Wilson said law enforcement and emergency personnel in the state have been receiving warnings to be on the lookout for these types of chemical suicides because officers can be sickened if they open a car door not realizing there are toxic gases present.  According to the federal government, four police officers were injured while responding to these calls between 2006 and 2010.

Chemical suicides are much more common in Japan, which has reported hundreds of such deaths over the years, experts said. 

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