May has been a good month for detergent sales in Japan. Unfortunately, it’s also been a good month for gas masks.
The growing trend in Japan of committing suicide by cooking up a noxious brew of household chemicals has become a disaster for anyone caught upwind. People aren’t just killing themselves anymore; they’re making their neighbors sick as well.
First, the suicidal were using detergent. A rash of suicides, performed by mixing detergents with household cleaners to create toxic gases like hydrogen sulfide, culminated in mass panic earlier this month. Two people—a teenage girl in southwest Japan and a man in Otaru, a city in northern Japan—each brewed toxic gas in their homes in order to off themselves. In the process, they sickened many nearby residents and caused evacuations of the areas around their homes.
Today, things got even stranger, when a 34-year-old farmer killed himself by drinking a chlorine-based insecticide called chloropicrin. He was rushed to the hospital, but when doctors and nurses tried to save him by pumping his stomach, he vomited the poison all over them, and managed to make about 50 other people sick. Those who were exposed to his noxious upchuck developed coughs and eye sores; 10 were hospitalized. Other patients in the hospital got even sicker when the fumes wafted into their wards.
These chemical disasters are a new wave of an old problem for Japan, which had the world’s tenth highest suicide rate in 2004. To curb the collateral damage, police want to clamp down on Web sites that offer instructions to mix the chemicals. What else they could do remains unclear. U.S. officials responded to the boom in the use of drugs like methamphetamine by putting one of its main ingredients, pseudophedrine medications like Sudafed, behind the counter and requiring buyers to sign paperwork for them. But it’s harder to hide detergent behind the counter. People still need to do their laundry.