Today, I saw a story out of my home state of Indiana that a 21 year old junior biochemistry major from Indiana Univeristy has taken his life using this same hydrogen sulfide method. Gregory Willoughby apparently worked as an undergraduate research assistant in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
In this instance, Gregory Willoughby barricaded himself in the closet of his dorm room on or about April 4. He left notes on the closet door warning first responders that hydrogen sulfide gas was present. Several days later, his suitemate began notifying physical plant of a strange odor in the area, and it took several visits by various facilities management groups over several days before they decided to enter Willoughby’s room. Police had to break down the door as it was barricaded from the inside by tape and furniture. By this time, the gas had thoroughly dissipated and no first responders complained of injuries as a result of residual hydrogen sulfide.
I’ve talked about the dangers of hydrogen sulfide before. Perhaps its most dangerous symptom is olfactory fatigue. Low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide smell like rotten eggs. Prolonged exposure leads to olfactory fatigue – you lose the ability to detect the odor of hydrogen sulfide. You no longer smell rotten eggs, so you think the threat has passed. Instead, you are still inhaling potentially lethal levels of the toxic gas. High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can lead to instantaneous unconsciousness and near immediate death.
Hydrogen sulfide suicide is also potentially dangerous to first responders and innocent bystanders. In several instances in several countries, first responders have been hospitalized for hydrogen sulfide inhalation after trying to rescue victims who do not leave notes warning the first responders of the danger. Additionally, one story notes a Japanese teen who used hydrogen sulfide in an apartment building and sickened almost 100 other residents as the gas spread throughout the complex. It is very fortunate that did not happen here, given the close living quarters of the typical college dorm.
I talked last time about the thin line between responsible and irresponsible use of chemicals found both around the house and especially in the chemistry lab. We don’t – and probably won’t – know if this student made use of his chemistry knowledge in making his final decisions. All we can do at this point is remind readers – chemists and non-chemists alike – to take seriously the responsibility inherent in handling chemicals. It’s all too easy for bad things to happen (unintentional as well as intentional) when playing with chemicals.
Again, I want to take this opportunity to encourage anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide – especially anyone who came to this page today for that reason – to call 911, your local emergency response number, or any of the numerous national and local suicide hotlines available. Do it now. I will also post the same disclaimer as last time: the comments of this post will be closely monitored. Anyone attempting to post recipes for the generation of hydrogen sulfide gas will have their comments removed immediately.
Previous at Chemistry-Blog:
Helpful information for first responders and health care providers:
- Very detailed CDC bulletin on hydrogen sulfide with sections for on-site medical care as well as information for long-term care
- St. Louis University bulletin on the dangers of and treatment for hydrogen sulfide inhalation
- Shelby County (KY) EMS presentation on hydrogen sulfide
Stories about the IU suicide:
- Initial Indiana Daily Student (IU newspaper) story on the death
- IDS follow up on victim
- WTHR (NBC Indianapolis) story with news video.
- WTHR follow up on victim
- Bloomington, IN, Herald Times on autopsy report
- Indianapolis Star story
New news stories:
- Indiana Daily Student article about the life of Willoughby. Undergraduate research with apparent plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry, Wells Scholar, accomplished cellist (in a quartet called “Stringin’ Scientist”, approved for study abroad for summer 2010
- WRTV (ABC Indianapolis) story on the risk to first responders
- WISH (CBS Indianapolis) TV news segment on the incident
- Terra Sigillata (of ScienceBlogs) coverage