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Chemical Suicides: Quick Deaths, Public Health Hazards

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- For more than three years now, news reports have painted eerily similar pictures of Americans killing themselves with toxic fumes: a man or woman slumped lifelessly over a steering wheel, windows up, doors locked, buckets or bottles of household chemicals nearby and homemade signs warning of poisonous gases inside.

From San Diego to Siesta Key, Florida, at least 37 people have died after mixing up baneful brews that in most of the cases cloaked them in invisible clouds of hydrogen sulfide so concentrated that one whiff can kill.  A few of them used similarly lethal hydrogen cyanide gas.

Local, state and federal agencies including the Justice Department have been monitoring the cases, although none have released official tallies. They trace the U.S. incidents to a rash of similar deaths in Japan, a country with high suicide rates.

In March 2008, Miyuki Asou, a Japanese actress who had recently appeared in pornographic films, committed "detergent suicide."  In the first half of 2008, more than 500 other Japanese killed themselves with instructions easily accessible online.  When a 14-year-old girl from Konan, Japan, committed detergent suicide in her bathroom, she inadvertently sickened 90 residents of an apartment building, demonstrating that chemical suicides pose public health hazards.

Whether they extinguish their lives in cars, or in college dormitories, apartments, homes or hotels, those who perish this way unwittingly endanger the lives of passersby or emergency response teams.

After a laboratory worker killed himself in his pickup truck on Dec. 21, 2009, four Kansas City, Missouri firefighters and one of the man's relatives were taken to a hospital after exposure to hydrogen cyanide.  He hadn't posted any warnings.

Emergency operations and law enforcement agencies have scrambled to use such examples to educate employees about donning breathing masks and hazmat suits before getting close to chemical suicide sites.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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