“Pans” of hydrogen sulfide in San Jose teenager’s death?

Yes, this is what happens when two scientists stay home on Valentine’s evening. PharmGirl just fed me the story from CNN about the San Jose high school kid who died yesterday after being taken unconscious from his house on Thursday.
The national and local stories indicate that “two pans containing hydrogen sulfide were found on a table in the teenager’s bedroom.”
Hydrogen sulfide, H2S, is a gas, one that smells of rotting eggs.
The only way it could be in liquid form is if it were bubbled through water or some other solvent.
But why would a kid have pans of liquid with H2S?
My gut made me develop a hypothesis based on the following report:

From abstracts of the Journal of Clandestine Laboratory Investigating Chemists Association

“Cook” Fails Chem 101; Hydrogen Sulfide Fatality
Mehul B. Anjaria, Criminalist
Hiram K. Evans, Supervising Criminalist / Deputy Sheriff
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department
Scientific Investigations Division
200 S Lena Rd
San Bernardino, CA 92408-1604
A methamphetamine “cook” equipped with an APR apparently mistakenly attempted to salt out his finished product with hydrogen sulfide rather than hydrogen chloride, leading to his demise.
On January 30, 1997, Criminalists Mehul B. Anjaria and Blaine M. Kern responded to a suspected clandestine drug laboratory in the Muscoy area of San Bernardino, CA. On arrival, they were directed by Sheriff’s Narcotics Detectives to the body of a deceased Hispanic male in his late twenties, lying supine on the driveway adjacent to what had been the garage, located to the rear of the residence. Near the body of the deceased was a half-face air purifying respirator (APR) equipped with organic vapor cartridges. The garage, converted to living quarters, had been previously entered by a Sheriff’s Sergeant wearing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) only long enough to ascertain that no other victims/suspects were present and to note a gas cylinder, the open valve on which he was unable to close.
Criminalists Anjaria and Kern donned protective clothing and SCBAs and entered the converted garage, noting a gas cylinder labeled “hydrogen sulfide” with ice formed on the bottom potion of the cylinder, indicating that the cylinder was freely discharging. The cylinder was connected via tubing to a 5 gallon bucket containing liquid, consistent with the final step of methamphetamine manufacture in which the drug is salted out using hydrogen chloride gas. Also present in the building were two-phase liquids, red phosphorus, hydriodic acid, lye, a mop bucket equipped with a press, and other items commonly associated with the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine. Due to the hazardous nature of the environment, additional air cylinder for the SCBAs were requested.
After conferral between the various law enforcement, fire department and Coroner’s representatives, it was decided to move the body of the deceased upwind from his original position to facilitate the examination of the body.
Criminalists Anjaria and Kern processed the interior of the garage. Supervising Criminalist Hiram Evans and Forensic Specialist Karen Rice assisted the Deputy Coroner with an examination of the body of the deceased, including rolling set of inked fingerprints and recovery of his wallet. The wallet contained some peso notes and a California Driver’s License (CDL), although the CDL photograph did not particularly resemble the victim. Forensic Specialist Rice also assisted in photographing the exterior of the scene.
The inked fingerprints of the deceased were submitted to the Lab’s Cal-ID unit and subsequently identified as those of a Mexican National, but not the name given on the CDL.
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a colorless, heavier than air, flammable gas having the characteristic, pungent odor of rotten eggs. Vapor concentrations as low as 50 ppm in air cause toxic symptoms, 300 ppm is immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), and 1000-2000 ppm is usually fatal within minutes [1]. By the way of comparison, hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is also a colorless, flammable gas, having a characteristic faint odor, but in contrast is lighter than air, with a 50 ppm IDLH level. Fatal H2S poisoning may occur even more rapidly than following an exposure to similar concentrations of HCN as hydrogen sulfide does not combine with hemoglobin, but kills through respiratory paralysis [2].
Acid gas, organic vapor, and base cartridges generally utilized in APRs are marked to be used with hydrogen sulfide “for escape only.” While the odor of hydrogen sulfide is detectable at very low concentrations, it is an insidious irritant and chemical asphyxiant which fatigues the sense of smell. With the sense of smell fatigued, those exposed fail to get warning of high concentrations, leading to respiratory paralysis and sudden collapse [3]. [emphasis mine]
Hydrogen sulfide has been used by Mexican National methamphetamine “cooks” for the clandestine manufacture of hydriodic acid and its is likely the deceased obtained it mistakenly for hydrogen chloride gas. Whether the “cook” obtained it on his own or through others is unknown at this time.
1. Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products, Marion N. Gleason, Robert E. Gosselin, and Harold N. Page, Willaims & Wilkins Co., Baltimore, MD, 1957, p. 147.
2. Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials, N. Irving Sax, 2nd ed., Reinhold Pub. Co., New York, NY, 1963, p. 888.
3. Merck Index, Susan Budavari, ed., 12th ed., Rahway, NJ, 1996, p. 823.

Hydrogen sulfide can also be bubbled through iodine to create hydriodic acid (HI), a reducing agent used with red phosphorus in the clandestine synthesis of methamphetamine.
Listen to Bruce Springsteen’s, Sinaloa Cowboys, for more.
Poor kid.

12 thoughts on ““Pans” of hydrogen sulfide in San Jose teenager’s death?

  1. H2S is _dangerous_.
    It doesn’t just “fatigues the sense of smell” – it _completely_ anaesthesizes your nose after only one or two breathes.
    We were trained that if you smell strong odor of rotten eggs and then stop smelling them – you should run for the nearest exit IMMEDIATELY.

  2. From what I understand there’s plenty of dangerous things that can happen in a meth lab. Idiots and multi-step chemistry involving pretty volatile compounds is non-stop excitement.

  3. @Andrew
    “Supine on the Driveway” is more of an album title.
    Matthew points out the suicide hypothesis, and I think that might be a more interesting lead. Think of it: geeky kid in SJ feels depressed and alienated. Turns to teh Intarwebz for fun, excitement, Japanese pr0n and Japanese suicide innovations.
    Suppose he was making drugs. If he’s geeky, he probably wouldn’t screw up the chemistry. He’d also likely use some other place besides his own room because the smell would be too obvious. And wouldn’t a news article also incude additional findings of drug paraphernalia?
    Didn’t look any further into the story, so I might be all wrong.

  4. @Rogue Epidemiologist
    “If he’s geeky, he probably wouldn’t screw up the chemistry”
    I’m not sure if its logically sound to use the fact that an event happened as evidence to distinguish between possible causes for that event.

  5. Tualha, perhaps because it is tragic when some kid does some bonehead thing and ends up dead, no matter what s/he may have done to others beforehand? It’s okay to pity the school shooters too, you know. It doesn’t subtract from the tragedy of their victims.

  6. @Tualha, my response is somewhat similar to DrugMonkey’s in that I can’t imagine being this kid’s parent and suspecting 1) if it was a planned suicide, how much pain the kid must’ve been in or 2) if it was an illicit drug synthesis, the fact that the young man was unlikely to be well-versed in the toxicology of the gas. I am saddened by the young man’s demise and have empathy for whatever situation in his life led this to occur.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s