Article Archive
Focus on Hazmat
H2S gas threatens responders
Vol. 26 Winter

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) aka “rotten egg gas” has been around longer than mankind. It is a product of volcanic activity as well as the anaerobic decomposition of organic material, such as raw sewage. It illustrates the multiplicity of valence or oxidation states of sulfur (-2, +4, +6) which can act as either an oxidizer or a reducer.

The gas is extremely toxic, comparable in this respect to hydrogen cyanide. It was used as a war gas at least once during World War I (1916) though with limited success due to the warning given by its strong odor.

Attention was directed to the possibility of using H2S as a means of self destruction after it was so used to carry out a number of suicides in 2008, primarily but not exclusively in Japan. As of 2010, this has occurred in a number of US cities (and in Putney West London, England), prompting warnings to first responders who can be exposed when responding to a suicide.

The idea of committing suicide or masking a homicide by means of inhaled gasses is not new. Gasses have been postulated as a means of suicide both in fact and in fiction for many years; the vacuum cleaner hose connected between the exhaust pipe and the passenger compartment of an automobile is classic in “who-done-it” plots as well as in actual fact and numerous deaths both accidental and suicidal have been the result of running a vehicle engine in a closed garage thereby filling the enclosed space with carbon monoxide, CO. Attempts have been made to use other gasses but these have largely been unsuccessful due to the strong irritating odor (chlorine (Cl2) and ammonia (NH3) which makes it almost impossible to voluntarily inhale a lethal quantity. In other instances the large amount of gas required to replace the oxygen in a room, and produce asphyxiation or the slowness with which the agent takes effect tend to reduce the actual number of successful attempts. The availability of the proposed suicide gas, or the materials necessary to produce it, is another factor which has, in the past, been an obstacle to the use of gases as implements of suicide.

Hydrogen sulfide eliminates a number of the drawbacks that we have outlined for other gases.

Hydrogen sulfide is not without odor but it paralyses the olfactory nerve and thus deactivates the warning that smell provides.

Hydrogen sulfide takes effect very quickly through action on the nervous system. The victim is rapidly rendered incapable of escaping even if he wished to do so.

Hydrogen sulfide is easily obtained or prepared in fairly large quantities from ordinary materials. Elemental Sulfur (“flowers of sulfur”) can be obtained at the pharmacy or from the garden store. When this is mixed with paraffin (candle wax) and heated somewhat strongly, H2S is evolved. Anyone who has survived a course in Qualitative Analysis should be familiar with “Aitch-tu-ess” which is utilized as a source of hydrogen sulfide in analytical protocols.

Even larger quantities of the gas can be produced by mixing ferrous sulfide (FeS) with a strong acid. Concentrated hydrochloric acid (HCl) will work as will fairly concentrated sulfuric (H2SO4).

The ferrous sulfide can be obtained at most garden stores and the hydrochloric acid is available from any building supply center (often under the trade name of “muriatic acid”) as a cleaning agent for masonry. The sulfuric acid is, of course, available as automobile battery electrolyte.

The reaction with hydrochloric acid is more rapid and produces more foam than that with sulfuric but if the object is to produce enough gas to fill an enclosed space this difference is of little consequence. 

From the vantage point of the first responder, once the details of suicide by means of hydrogen sulfide becomes common knowledge, it would not be unreasonable to expect a wave of such incidents similar to that seen in Japan but so far this has not happened. It is also to be expected that most attempts at suicide by means of hydrogen sulfide would be successful since the gas acts quickly and gives little or no opportunity for the perpetrator to have a last minute change of heart.

It is also important that the first responder be aware of the possibility of encountering poisonous gas at any emergency scene and thus take the proper precautions to prevent becoming an additional and unintended victim. There are several “quick, cheap and dirty” (with emphasis on the “quick”) observations that can provide an immediate tip off to a responder. One of the best of these is smell; if there is even a hint of the odor of rotten eggs the responder should leave the area and either don SCBA or call for someone who is trained in the use of such equipment.

A quick but very effective home-made monitor for hydrogen sulfide consists of an aqueous  solution of lead acetate and a few strips of filter paper (a piece of coffee filter works just fine).

To use this system simply moisten the filter paper with the lead acetate solution and bring it near the source of the odor. If hydrogen sulfide is present the strip of moistened paper will turn gray or black.

Anyone intent on committing suicide with hydrogen sulfide will generally take measures to make sure that the death chamber is sealed as tightly as possible. With today’s automobiles sealed to keep out noise and to keep in air conditioning it is not too difficult to obtain a nearly gas tight seal but often the perpetrator will attempt to augment these seals with duct tape or some other sealant. The presence of duct tape or anything else that could be used to ensure a gas-tight seal should alert the responder to the possibility of a gaseous agent being involved and, while this discussion is focused on hydrogen sulfide, it is only prudent to remember that there are other gaseous agents that can and have been used to facilitate suicide or homicide. 

Given the present state of world affairs it would be unwise to fail to consider the possibilities

of using hydrogen sulfide as an agent of mass terror. Any enclosed space, a moving subway train for instance or airliner, would offer an opportunity for a terrorist attack. A pound or so of ferrous sulfide and a liter or so of hydrochloric acid would provide enough gas to fulfill the terrorist’s requirements. An elevator in a high-rise building offers another venue for those of a violent mind set intent on doing mischief. All that is needed is a little high school chemistry and a vivid imagination to add yet another hazard to the work of the first responder and another opportunity for him to loose his own life while trying to save others. 

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) aka “rotten egg gas” has been around longer than mankind. It is a product of volcanic activity as well as the anaerobic decomposition of organic material, such as raw sewage. It illustrates the multiplicity of valence or oxidation states of sulfur (-2, +4, +6) which can act as either an oxidizer or a reducer.

The gas is extremely toxic, comparable in this respect to hydrogen cyanide. It was used as a war gas at least once during World War I (1916) though with limited success due to the warning given by its strong odor.

Attention was directed to the possibility of using H2S as a means of self destruction after it was so used to carry out a number of suicides in 2008, primarily but not exclusively in Japan. As of 2010, this has occurred in a number of US cities (and in Putney West London, England), prompting warnings to first responders who can be exposed when responding to a suicide.

The idea of committing suicide or masking a homicide by means of inhaled gasses is not new. Gasses have been postulated as a means of suicide both in fact and in fiction for many years; the vacuum cleaner hose connected between the exhaust pipe and the passenger compartment of an automobile is classic in “who-done-it” plots as well as in actual fact and numerous deaths both accidental and suicidal have been the result of running a vehicle engine in a closed garage thereby filling the enclosed space with carbon monoxide, CO. Attempts have been made to use other gasses but these have largely been unsuccessful due to the strong irritating odor (chlorine (Cl2) and ammonia (NH3) which makes it almost impossible to voluntarily inhale a lethal quantity. In other instances the large amount of gas required to replace the oxygen in a room, and produce asphyxiation or the slowness with which the agent takes effect tend to reduce the actual number of successful attempts. The availability of the proposed suicide gas, or the materials necessary to produce it, is another factor which has, in the past, been an obstacle to the use of gases as implements of suicide.

Hydrogen sulfide eliminates a number of the drawbacks that we have outlined for other gases.

Hydrogen sulfide is not without odor but it paralyses the olfactory nerve and thus deactivates the warning that smell provides.

Hydrogen sulfide takes effect very quickly through action on the nervous system. The victim is rapidly rendered incapable of escaping even if he wished to do so.

Hydrogen sulfide is easily obtained or prepared in fairly large quantities from ordinary materials. Elemental Sulfur (“flowers of sulfur”) can be obtained at the pharmacy or from the garden store. When this is mixed with paraffin (candle wax) and heated somewhat strongly, H2S is evolved. Anyone who has survived a course in Qualitative Analysis should be familiar with “Aitch-tu-ess” which is utilized as a source of hydrogen sulfide in analytical protocols.

Even larger quantities of the gas can be produced by mixing ferrous sulfide (FeS) with a strong acid. Concentrated hydrochloric acid (HCl) will work as will fairly concentrated sulfuric (H2SO4).

The ferrous sulfide can be obtained at most garden stores and the hydrochloric acid is available from any building supply center (often under the trade name of “muriatic acid”) as a cleaning agent for masonry. The sulfuric acid is, of course, available as automobile battery electrolyte.

The reaction with hydrochloric acid is more rapid and produces more foam than that with sulfuric but if the object is to produce enough gas to fill an enclosed space this difference is of little consequence. 

From the vantage point of the first responder, once the details of suicide by means of hydrogen sulfide becomes common knowledge, it would not be unreasonable to expect a wave of such incidents similar to that seen in Japan but so far this has not happened. It is also to be expected that most attempts at suicide by means of hydrogen sulfide would be successful since the gas acts quickly and gives little or no opportunity for the perpetrator to have a last minute change of heart.

It is also important that the first responder be aware of the possibility of encountering poisonous gas at any emergency scene and thus take the proper precautions to prevent becoming an additional and unintended victim. There are several “quick, cheap and dirty” (with emphasis on the “quick”) observations that can provide an immediate tip off to a responder. One of the best of these is smell; if there is even a hint of the odor of rotten eggs the responder should leave the area and either don SCBA or call for someone who is trained in the use of such equipment.

A quick but very effective home-made monitor for hydrogen sulfide consists of an aqueous  solution of lead acetate and a few strips of filter paper (a piece of coffee filter works just fine).

To use this system simply moisten the filter paper with the lead acetate solution and bring it near the source of the odor. If hydrogen sulfide is present the strip of moistened paper will turn gray or black.

Anyone intent on committing suicide with hydrogen sulfide will generally take measures to make sure that the death chamber is sealed as tightly as possible. With today’s automobiles sealed to keep out noise and to keep in air conditioning it is not too difficult to obtain a nearly gas tight seal but often the perpetrator will attempt to augment these seals with duct tape or some other sealant. The presence of duct tape or anything else that could be used to ensure a gas-tight seal should alert the responder to the possibility of a gaseous agent being involved and, while this discussion is focused on hydrogen sulfide, it is only prudent to remember that there are other gaseous agents that can and have been used to facilitate suicide or homicide. 

Given the present state of world affairs it would be unwise to fail to consider the possibilities of using hydrogen sulfide as an agent of mass terror. Any enclosed space, a moving subway train for instance or airliner, would offer an opportunity for a terrorist attack. A pound or so of ferrous sulfide and a liter or so of hydrochloric acid would provide enough gas to fulfill the terrorist’s requirements. An elevator in a high-rise building offers another venue for those of a violent mind set intent on doing mischief. All that is needed is a little high school chemistry and a vivid imagination to add yet another hazard to the work of the first responder and another opportunity for him to loose his own life while trying to save others.

 
 

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