46-year-old Kerry Hullet tried to kill himself last week with household chemicals. This increasingly common but dangerous method of suicide is spreading through internet chat forums, sometimes with disastrous consequences. On this occasion, we can only guess that Kerry Hullet realised too late that it was not going to be the instantaneous, painless death he had hoped for: after mixing the chemicals to make hydrogen sulphide, he had time to shoot himself in the head.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued in September, 208 people mixed household chemicals to kill themselves in Japan during a three-month period in 2008. Instructions have been posted on the Internet, and similar suicides are increasingly being seen in the United States, according to the CDC.
There is no control over the exact composition of ingredients – common household chemicals – that are used. Manufacturers can change them slightly without putting a warning on the label. Such changes could affect not only the amount of gas released but, crucially, the speed at which it is released.
The New York Times reported in June 2011 that of 72 chemical suicides experts have documented in the U.S. since 2008, at least 80 percent have resulted in injuries to police officers, firefighters, emergency workers or civilians exposed to the gas. Harm to others occurs, even though suicide victims often post warning signs. This is not to say that all such attempts end so badly. But it is worrying for officials. In some cases, passers-by have been injured, or whole blocks of flats evacuated. Side-effects of inhaling the gas, even if death does not ensue, can be painful and long-lasting.
Sadly, there are frequent drives to limit access to means of safe, peaceful suicide such as using helium gas. People dissuaded from using one method seek out another one – often with terrible results to themselves and others. You can’t stop suicide by censorship or enforced ignorance. Addressing the underlying causes is the way forward.