Post Tagged with: "MSDS"

Indiana University Biochemistry Major Commits Suicide with Hydrogen Sulfide

Almost exactly one month ago, I posted on a recent duo of suicides in my area by hydrogen sulfide (MSDS) – a toxic gas generated by mixing together certain easy-to-obtain household chemicals.

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:

Update (4/15):

New news stories:

By April 14, 2010 5 comments science news

The Name(ing) Game

legislationCheryl Hogue’s recent piece entitled “Naming What’s in Cleaning Products” caught my attention earlier this past weekend (C&EN, February 23, 2009).  Cheryl does a great job covering the interface of chemistry and the environment—hitting the high points while remaining concise—and the brief article in question is no exception.  However, the issue at hand was rather concerning.

In a nutshell, activists from an Oakland-based firm called EarthJustice recently filed a lawsuit in New York State demanding that several manufacturers/distributors disclose ingredients on the label of their household chemical products (detergents, cleaning agents, etc.).  Companies named in the lawsuit include Church & Dwight, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser.  The suit accuses manufacturers of failing to comply with a New York law that was enacted over 30 years ago.  The legislation at issue was passed in 1976 and makes two specific requirements.  First, the law essentially bans the presence of phosphates and nitrilotriacetic acid in household chemicals sold within New York State.  Second, the law requires household chemical manufacturers to stamp a list of ingredients onto the labels of their products.  From what I understand, this act was implemented to protect the overall environment of New York State (from urban areas to surrounding watersheds).  Ultimately, EarthJustice claims that forcing companies to comply with the law purportedly will increase public awareness, which, in turn, will help the environment

The lead attorney for EarthJustice, Keri Powell, made this argument to C&EN:

“People deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful.” 

I’m skeptical of this argument/lawsuit for a couple of reasons.  First, if this law has been dormant for the past 30 years, why is EarthJustice now pushing the issue?  Was New York State asleep at the wheel?  Isn’t this something that should’ve been handled by the EPA?  I realize environmental awareness is a hot topic and a popular vehicle for political action.  While the act of suing over labels to protect the environment is (in my mind) illogical, I am troubled over whether the issue is truly legitimate or a way for an unbiased organization to grind a political act (yes, I’m being cynical and possibly paranoid). 

Second, and more concerning, Ms. Powell (and her colleagues at EarthJustice) assumes that proper labeling will, in fact, increase public knowledge.  Her assumption is entirely conditional (certainly not sufficient) on whether or not a reasonable consumer would understand what they read.  Example: my mother is obsessed with the product Goof Off and has two cans of it on hand at any given time.  However, if Goof Off was labeled with its ingredients, she couldn’t tell you the first thing about xylene (the main chemical in Goof Off).  It took her strapping, young (and most definitely handsome) son to explain the potential risks of using such a product.

Don’t get me wrong.  My diverse background in hard science has taught me two very important lessons: learn as much as you possibly can and label everything.  Consumer chemical awareness requires the same conditions, and simply forcing a company to slap a label on something doesn’t solve the problem.  In my mind, the issue of chemical awareness is similar to the “ban dihyrogen monoxide” prank conducted a few years back.  Without education (i.e. learning what the chemicals names actually mean), this proposed labeling crusade is largely irrelevant. 

Furthermore, chemical information is readily available (assuming you or your public library has access to the internet).  While there are a few exceptions, every chemical product (including those used at home) must have an MSDS, which can be found online.  Every MSDS identifies the chief ingredients in said product.  Granted, MSDS’s were created for the purposes of right-to-know information in industrial/commercial settings.  But, in my opinion, if John Q. Consumer can read a label, he can certainly read an MSDS.

I salute EarthJustice for all the work they’ve done to protect America’s environment.  Their commitment to public interest is genuine and deserves applause.  However, I think they are barking up the wrong tree with this lawsuit—dragging a whole bunch of companies through expensive court process to get something to happen that’s relevance is moot (at best).  My solution?  Shift the focus.  For example, serve the public’s interest by teaching them how to access/read/interpret chemical information.  Or educate the public on how phosphates are detrimental to the environment.  Lobby politicians to entirely ban certain household chemicals in the state (beyond the ppm limits currently set). 

Let’s assume EarthJustice wins the lawsuit.  What happens next?  Maybe it’s me, but I don’t see an end game in sight.  

P.S. In addition to C&ENews, this story has been picked up by Scientific American, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.