Man appears in court after charged in sale of lethal powder linked to Ont. deaths
BRAMPTON, Ont. — Police in Ontario say they are working with national and international law enforcement as they investigate a Mississauga man accused of selling a potentially lethal substance online to people at risk of killing themselves.
Peel Regional Police arrested 57-year-old Kenneth Law on Tuesday and charged him with two counts of counselling or aiding suicide after investigating two recent local deaths.
"The investigation in its totality is concerning," said Sgt. Jennifer Trimble, a Peel police media relations officer, in an interview Wednesday.
Law briefly appeared in front of a Brampton, Ont., court by video feed, handcuffed in a holding cell, before his bail hearing was put over until May 9.
Police say the first of the two people identified in the Peel Region died at the end of March after they consumed sodium nitrate allegedly bought from an online company owned Law. Investigators say they later learned of the second death, also in the region west of Toronto.
Peel police say the investigation now involves 1,200 packages allegedly sent to 40 countries. While the content of the packages remains unclear, Trimble says investigators are reaching out to police in those countries and conducting well-being checks on people who received a package.
Ontario Provincial Police alerted the public Wednesday to report any packages received from five companies they allege are connected to Law: Academic, AmbuCA, ICemac, Escape Mode, and Imtime Cuisine.
A coroner's report from the United Kingdom looking into the April 2022 death by suicide of a woman in Surrey, southwest of London, lists a postal box in Mississauga, Ont., and Imtime Cuisine, one of the companies marked by police.
The partially redacted report does not mention a substance or a seller. But the coroner does raise concerns that "(redacted) is freely available to be purchased from the internet in lethal quantities" and no protection is afforded to vulnerable people before buying it.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Surrey Police said that as part of an investigation into the woman's death, the U.K. police force reviewed a "website used for the purchase, which is based abroad, and contacted the seller."
"At this time there was no evidence items on that site were being advertised or knowingly sold for the purposes of suicide," the statement read.
Purported testimonials on Escape Mode's archived website, which lists Kenneth Law as a founder, made reference to terms for devices used in suicide and thanked a “Kenneth” for providing other options in a “marketplace” dominated by “Dr. Nitschke’s sprawling ‘death empire’,” an apparent reference to the controversial Austrian advocate for voluntary death Philip Nitschke.
Physicians have sounded the alarm about the rise in intentional deaths associated with sodium nitrite — and its chemical cousin, sodium nitrate — for a few years.
The increase in cases in Ontario prompted Dr. Tyler Hickey, a forensic pathologist for the province, to co-author a study in 2021.
Restricting access could be part of the solution, he told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
“I do think there may be may be opportunities to reduce some of these suicidal deaths by looking at accessibility for these substances,” Hickey said.
In an emailed statement, Health Canada said it “has been made aware of reports of people intentionally ingesting sodium nitrate or nitrite with the intent of self-harm and is taking action to address this concerning trend.”
“The numerous legitimate uses of sodium nitrate and nitrite for industrial, commercial and consumer applications include its use as a food additive. Health Canada has assessed the common uses of sodium nitrite and found that when used as intended, it does not pose a risk to human health," the statement said.
Poisonings with sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate have been on the rise for about the past five years, said Dr. Margaret Thompson, medical director of the Ontario Poison Centre.
The centre notified Canada’s Institute for Safe Medication Practices, she said, which helped to ensure that the antidote — methylene blue — was readily available in emergency departments.
Although Thompson wouldn’t oppose restricting access to sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate, she worries that won’t address the broader issues of suicide prevention.
“Can we remove all suicidal agents from our environment? No,” she said.
“It may not be this agent. It may be something else. I think the bigger message is we need adequate, better health care resources for the person who is stressed, depressed, suicidal.”
- with files from Nicole Ireland
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling Talk Suicide Canada (1-833-456-4566) or texting 45645 in the evenings. Residents of Quebec can call 1 866 APPELLE (1-866-277-3553) or visit suicide.ca for support by text and online chat.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press