Death By Detergent


The call comes in for a body in a car. No lights and sirens.

The address is at the end of a long dead end road. We go as far as the ambulance will take us, then get out behind the two police cars, and trudge though the snow. A hundred yards ahead, we can see the officer standing by the snow-covered car, but then he turns and waves his arms to get our attention. “Stay there!” he shouts.

He says something to the second officer who has just reached the car, and then the second cops starts walking back towards us.

“Been dead awhile,” the officer says. “There are placards in the windows saying there are hazardous chemicals inside. (The other officer) got of whiff of ammonia. We’re going to call a HazMat team in. It looks like its one of those internet death by chemical cases. We just had training on it. Someone wants to off themselves, they mix some chemicals in a bowl. It makes hydrogen sulfide and poof they’re dead. They put placards in the windows to alert rescuers.”

I have never heard of this, but my partner says he has. We get in the ambulance and back down the road aways to the turnabout, and stage there.

More cops and firefighters arrive. And the official call goes out for the full Haz Mat team. After an hour we are relieved by a commercial ambulance so we can go back to covering the town.

It is many hours until the scene and body are decontaminated enough for the medic to run his strip and call the time.

Here’s some information on this increasingly common type of suicide in case you find yourself outside a car with a body inside and placards in the windows.

Ada County Sherriff;s Office Emergency Responder Safety Bulletin

Suicide Fits Disturbing Trend

Dangerous “Detergent Suicide” Technique Creeps into the United States



  • jimmy d says:

    interesting thr choice of a warning symbol on the left in the picture of the car. that’s the symbol for biohazard waste instead of the poison.

  • Calzone says:

    How stupid. Break the car window and let the crap air out! It will be diluted and vented in seconds…

    The patient might still be alive while everyone dicks around.

  • medicscribe says:

    Thanks for the comments. The picture I posted is from the Ada County Press release. I never got close enough to the car to see the what the signs looked like, and would have been forbidden to take a picture myself.

    This person had been missing for a couple days and was “obviously dead” in one of the responders words.

    I am not even close to an expert in Haz Mat inicdents so I always defer to the experts. Our medics and first reponders are not firemen. I do wonder how I would have acted if I had reached the car first and the patient inside had looked not so dead. Other news reports I have read of this have mentioned responders being hospitalized, in some cases for days. I have a two year year old daughter so after being on this call and reading about silimiar calls, I will heed the notices.

  • EMT says:

    The patient might still be alive while everyone dicks around.

    You risk your own life flogging a contaminated corpse. I’ll be waiting at the truck for the people who actually know what they’re doing.

  • totwtytr says:

    I sort of agree with Calzone, because essentially that’s what the HazMat team is going to do.

    At least the dead guy was considerate enough to put up signs.

    I’m always surprised by the requirement to “run a strip” on obvious deaths. That’s because we don’t and never had, we use clinical indicators. Different systems, I guess.

    I’ll leave out the snarky comment about the poison gas ruining the resale value of the vehicle.

    • medicscribe says:

      For us the strip is part of a state requirement.

      We also have a list of clinical indicators we have to document on each presumption run form. (The strip requirement comes from the occasional person waking up after they have been presumed.)

      Here is part of our procedure:

      In cases of dependent lividity with rigor mortis and in cases of injuries incompatible with life, the condition of clinical death must be confirmed by observation of the following:
      a. Reposition the airway and look, listen, and feel for at least 30 seconds for spontaneous respirations; respiration is absent.
      b. Palpate the carotid pulse for at least 30 seconds; pulse is absent.
      c. Examine the pupils of both eyes with a light; both pupils are non-reactive.
      d. Absence of a shockable rhythm with an AED for 30 seconds or lack of cardiac activity with a cardiac monitor [paramedic] (in at least 2 leads) for 30 seconds.

      We do not have to run a strip on the following:

      a. Decapitation: the complete severing of the head from the remainder of the patient’s body.
      b. Decomposition or putrefaction: the skin is bloated or ruptured, with or without soft tissue sloughed off. The presence of at least one of these signs indicate death occurred at least 24 hours previously.
      c. Transection of the torso: the body is completely cut across below the shoulders and above the hips through all major organs and vessels. The spinal column may or may not be severed.
      d. Incineration: 90% of body surface area 3° burn as exhibited by ash rather than clothing and complete absence of body hair with charred skin.

      Trees rejoice.

  • MIke Prekopa says:

    I’m sorry, but if I see that there is no way im breaking the window… Yes, that is what hazmat will do, BUT HAZMAT WILL DO IT WHILE WEARING SCBAs… I’ve read into this more than just this article, and at higher concentrations, one inhalation will kill you. The first person you take care of, yourself… what good is an injured or dead EMT?

  • MarkUK says:

    Breaking the window should be perfectly OK. Can’t you hold your breath for 30s?

    H2S (hydrogen sulfide) is harmful over 10ppm if you work an 8-hour shift in that atmosphere. To be instantly harmful, you’re looking at 100ppm or more. H2S has no intelligence; break the downwind side window first and the stuff will diffuse out, leaving you plenty of time to get away. It won’t chase you.

    If you can smell rotten eggs, you are safe. The H2S is <5ppm, and probably <1ppm.

    Now break the upwind window, to allow a through-draught. If you have a light breeze, the car will be clear in 1-2 minutes. If you have a howling gale, it will be clear in a second or two.

    Yes, I do have experience of H2S, in an industrial situation.

  • Karl Tsen says:

    As a firemedic and hazmat tech it worries me that so many responders advocate breaking open a window during a possible hazmat incident. With so many unknowns and no protective gear it not only risks your life but your crew as well. A neighboring suburb recently had a similar call and the result was two policemen and an entire engine company hospitalized because the victim had chosen to make cyanide gas as his poison!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *