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Hazmat dangers of 'detergent suicides'

These are hazardous environments and should only be managed by persons with appropriate respiratory and physical protection

By Jim Love

You receive a call to a person passed out in a car in the parking lot of a public park. Upon arrival you notice a male in his mid-twenties slumped over in the seat, apparently unresponsive. You notice what appears to be a haze in the car but don't pay it much attention; you are focused on the patient.

You open the door to begin your assessment. You breathe in and immediately sense the presence of acid and begin to cough and wretch. You feel as though you are unable to breathe or catch your breath. Your eyes begin to burn.

Such scenarios actually happened in the past few weeks in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Raleigh, N.C., and in Ada County, Idaho, last year. The difference in these three cases is that rescuers were forewarned of the hazards.

In all these instances, warning signs — "Call Hazmat," "Stay Away," and "One Breath of Gas Can Kill" — were posted on the vehicles. The most recent incident came in Oxford, N.C, last week as outlined in the video that accompanies this article.

The incidents can be seen as an emerging trend called "Detergent Suicides," so named from the practice of mixing certain household chemicals to produce a toxic and lethal gas (hydrogen sulfide). This form of suicide first gained notoriety several years ago in Japan, where more than 3,000 deaths have been attributed to the method.

These are hazardous environments and should only be managed by persons with appropriate respiratory and physical protection. A simple HEPA or N95 respirator is not adequate protection.

It would be foolish to believe that everyone who commits suicide in this manner will also warn responders of potential hazards. Last December, four responders were sent to the hospital in Sugar Creek , Mo., when they responded to such an event where no warnings were posted.

Be aware, be suspicious. Help to spread the word that this risk is out there.

Jim Love began his EMS career in 1974. Since that time he has worked providing direct patient care, and has been an FTO. He transitioned to management and has held many positions over the years including operations and later focusing on training, safety and risk management. His most recent position was National Director of Safety and Risk for AMR. Prior to that, he was the Regional Director of Safety and Risk, CES and Fleet Services, also for AMR. He worked extensively on the development of all three Safety Concept Vehicles co-built by AMR and AEV. He maintains an EMS Safety site and blog, EMSafety.net, and can be contacted at drjlove007@gmail.com.

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