Troubling Rise in Suicides Linked With Common Food Preservative

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Summary: Health experts call for stricter regulations for the use of sodium nitrate, a product commonly used for meat curing, following its link to suicides and increased numbers of poisonings.

A recent increase in fatal sodium nitrite poisonings has some health experts calling for stricter regulation of the substance. Sodium nitrite is a white salt commonly used in curing meat. But in recent years, it’s also being used as a poison in suicides.

Ontario has seen at least 28 sodium nitrite poisoning deaths between 1980 and 2020, with most happening in the last two years of that period. Alberta Health Service’s poison center, which also serves the Northwest Territories and Saskatchewan, saw at least two sodium nitrite poisonings causing serious harm last year, and two more this year.

These numbers are likely an undercount because Canada does not collect comprehensive data about sodium nitrite poisoning.

Toxicovigilance Canada, a poison control network led by Health Canada, was unable to share national figures, citing “no national data from medical examiners, coroners or poison centers.” Poison centers also do not have a clear picture of the problem because it’s not mandatory for healthcare workers to pass along information about the poisonings they treat.

In the United States, the National Poison Data System recorded 47 cases of sodium nitrite poisoning between 2015 and 2020. Like in Ontario, most of these poisonings occurred in 2019 and 2020.

Online forums promoting poisonings

Sodium nitrite poisoning was virtually unheard of until very recently, says Eric McGillis, a Calgary-based medical toxicologist at Alberta’s Poison and Drug Information Service. However, “the cases are increasing exponentially over the last several years.”

The trend appears to be driven by online forums detailing how to dose sodium nitrite for suicide.

Amazon became a key marketplace for the substance, leading to lawsuits from bereaved families. (Sodium nitrite no longer shows up in top search results on the site.) Other online marketplaces, including Etsy and eBay, have banned sales of the substance.

Dana Saleh, a fourth-year respiratory medicine resident at the University of Calgary, says it’s concerning to see online communities encouraging people to kill themselves. She is the lead author of a case report about a 20-year-old man who ingested sodium nitrite purchased online as part of a “suicide kit.”

“These are very vulnerable individuals to begin with, and then they have access to these websites essentially teaching them how to suicide,” Saleh says. “It’s coming in assembled and it’s easily accessible.”

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