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Toxic stew of household chemicals found with dead woman

Posted March 15, 2010

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— Hazmat crews responded to an Oxford home late Sunday and evacuated nearby homes after authorities found a woman's body and a bucket of toxic chemicals inside a car.

Family members called authorities to 107 Hazelwood Court at about 10 p.m., where the car was parked behind the house. Oxford Police Chief John Wolford said a chemical mixture was on the seat near the body of Phillita Harris.

Biohazard warning tape 'Detergent suicides' pose danger to first responders

"Basically, we’ve determined that the chemical in the vehicle is some sort of household mix," Wolford said, adding authorities planned to test the mix to determine what it contained.

Harris, 35, lived at the house with her son, who was not home at the time, police said. She was a second-grade teacher at Dabney Elementary School in Vance County but had been on medical leave for the past year, Vance County Schools officials said.

“The woman in the vehicle does not appear to have suffered any external wounds and at this time, the police investigation is simply being dubbed a death investigation,”  Wolford said.

Officers secured the scene and called for the Oxford Fire Department to investigate for hazardous material identification. The Raleigh Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Team was called for assistance.

More than one law enforcement officer opened the car door before authorities determined hazardous chemicals were inside, Wolford said.

“One of the Granville County sheriff’s deputies felt some burning or discomfort in his throat and was transported to Granville Medical Center to be checked out,” he said.

The unidentified deputy was treated at the hospital and released.

Hazmat officials at the scene said they responded to a similar scene less than a month ago in Cary, where a man killed himself in his car using a toxic mix of chemicals.

The technique, dubbed "detergent suicide," has been widespread in Japan for several years and began showing up in the U.S. in the last year or two, according to media reports.

"The idea that this is a potential method (of suicide) is concerning for everybody,” Wolford said. "This is relatively new, so I think now we are going to clearly – as other agencies in our region have – look at this very differently.”

One difference between the Cary and Oxford cases, Wolford said, was that there was no note warning first responders of the presence of toxic chemicals in the latest case.

"There's a big concern, obviously, for my guys who are responding, and we want to be as safe as we can," said Capt. Ian Thoms, hazmat coordinator for the Raleigh Fire Department. "There's also a concern for the general public who are not aware of this information."

Fumes released by opening the door to a car or a room where someone has carried out a "detergent suicide" are unlikely to kill a bystander, Thoms said, but they could make someone sick. Anyone who sees a situation they believe to involve such a suicide should call 911 immediately, he said.

"Keep everybody away. Call 911. Get help there as quick as possible and just stay away and just observe the situation," he said.

40 Comments

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  • prayin4tr Mar 16, 8:51 a.m.

    anitalanier2008 I am so sorry for your family's lost. Praying for her little one especially I know he's gonna miss his mommy.

  • anitalanier2008 Mar 15, 7:36 p.m.

    I cannot believe how cruel people can be. I have know Phillita all her life and she was my cousin. She was a sweet, beautiful young woman who was loved by her family and friends. I just don't think she may have known how much! Apparently something much deeper was going on in her life, but I am certainly not one to judge. I loved her and every time I saw her I was glad to see her and hug her! God knows it all. It is all in His Hands so I think its best that we only say kind words and try to be gentle with this family and all the others that these tragic events happen to. One day, IT MAY BE YOUR FAMILY! I love You ,Phillita!
    Anita Evans-Lanier Winter Garden. Fl

  • iamsiam1096 Mar 15, 7:35 p.m.

    Angels I have to agree with family four...it is an ugly selfish thing. I have helped families clean up the mess and deal with family suicides, they just dump everything on those left behind. It is sad that they see this as their only option, but it is ugly and selfish. I have also watched one guy drag his family up and down like a yoyo with multiple attempts, never accepting help. He is a narcissistic jerk with small children and no concern for their safety and well being. His wife chooses to stay. What breaks my heart is knowing what those kids will go thru when he succeeds or worse yet get hurt or killed in the process as he is at home watching the kids while the wife works. Sadly he saw what his own brothers suicide did to his family and is willing to put them thru it again. I feel for the child left behind who will quite possibly wonder the rest of his life, "is this my fault." Realistic or not...it will haunt them.
    Prayers that this person did not leave a huge mess.

  • Smorgas_Of_Borg Mar 15, 7:27 p.m.

    All you have to do is read the label on household cleaners. They give you a 'warning' to NOT mix 'this' cleaner with 'this/these' cleaners/chemicals.

    Go to your cabinet with your cleaners and read the label.

    To some, the 'warning' is a 'formula' for how to commit 'detergent suicide'.

    Scarey, isn't it?

  • familyfour Mar 15, 5:56 p.m.

    Angels....thank you, and that is exactly my point....many of us *have* suffered, felt pain, agony, despair....and I will always believe that it was/is the most selfish ugly thing one can do....they opt out. They leave everyone behind because giving up was a better option.

    I guess I just find it hard to be sympathetic, because, after years of trying....it all boils down to the fact that one must be willing to help themselves. She just didn't it the way it came. I have accepted that.

    I choose *life*, no matter what!

  • mulecitybabe Mar 15, 5:43 p.m.

    impatient girl, I'll go you one better. If you feel suicidal, call the crisis hot line, 911, go the the ER, whatever, but get help!

  • larieke Mar 15, 5:27 p.m.

    mrsmom, I agree with you wholeheartedly. There are a lot of people who mix household cleaning supplies. i.e. Comet and bathroom cleaner spray. It would be well to report some of the bad combinations for those who might inadvertently mix them.

  • housemanagercary Mar 15, 5:00 p.m.

    So very sad that she felt she had to do this. If there are any potential copy-catters reading this, as there usually are, please leave a note to warn people so you don't harm/kill them too!

  • mrsmom Mar 15, 4:57 p.m.

    "Please never-ever mix household cleaners... And press, authorities should never-ever name the cleaner/chemicals used."

    I am usually on the side of not reporting things that could cause more harm or copy cats, but not necessarily in this case. Someone desperate enough to commit suicide could easily find directions for lethal chemical mixtures on the internet so not reporting them isn’t much help. I would rather know what the mixture is so I don't accidentally harm myself in a cleaning frenzy.

  • AngelsAmongUs Mar 15, 4:24 p.m.

    family four says:
    "It is sad when anyone gets to the depths of suicide.
    I still don't know why my mother made that choice....but it was about the most selfish and ugly thing she could have ever done."

    I wish that you could understand the depths of despair that a person goes through when they decide that death is the only answer. The pain and agony. The feeling of utter and complete hopelessness. And yet, on the other hand, I'm glad you don't or you may be next.
    PLEASE, don't think of it as selfish and ugly. She did what her painful mind reasoned out was the best thing to do. If only she had gotten the help that she needed.....
    I'm so sorry for your loss.

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