Happy Accidents #062 - The Coal Gas Story

A decision leads to very positive unintended consequences

This week’s newsletter is quite different from those that have preceded it. Today, we are not diving into an invention, or a business that found great success.

Instead, we are touching on a different kind of Happy Accident. One that talks about a decision that had very positive unintended consequences. This is also a story about the topic of mental health and a glimpse of hope.

This week, we are looking at a phenomenon known as “the coal gas story”.

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Let's dig in, shall we?


The 1950s marked the post-war period of reconstruction. Britain, like many other European countries, was recovering from the devastation of World War II. Efforts were focused on rebuilding infrastructure, homes, and the economy.

The 1960s is often remembered as a decade of cultural revolution. There was a significant shift in societal norms, with the emergence of the youth culture and the influence of popular music, fashion, and art. The "Swinging Sixties" in London, for example, witnessed a vibrant cultural scene that challenged traditional values.

But these shifts over those two decades may have also contributed to an increase in mental health challenges for some individuals.

Factors such as economic hardship, social isolation, and other societal pressures could have played a role in the higher suicide rates that were observed during that period.

And then…

Something happened in the late 60’s that unexpectedly saw the suicide rates begin to decline.


Prior to the 1960’s, coal gas had commonly been used for heating and lighting in homes. However, it contained a high concentration of carbon monoxide, a highly toxic gas.

Inhaling carbon monoxide can lead to poisoning and was a method frequently chosen by individuals attempting suicide.

As the British government transitioned from coal gas to natural gas in the late 1960s, the carbon monoxide content in the domestic gas supply greatly reduced.

The introduction of natural gas, which is less toxic, unintentionally became a suicide prevention measure. The new gas did not provide a reliable method for individuals attempting suicide, and as a result, the overall suicide rate dropped.


Psychologists eventually noticed this new trend and determined the correlation. It was later discovered that this phenomenon was not unique to Britain.

Similar patterns have been observed in other parts of the world when certain methods commonly used for suicide become less accessible or less lethal.

For example, restrictions on access to lethal pesticides in Sri Lanka and a decrease in the availability of firearms in various countries, including Australia and Israel, have been associated with declines in suicide rates.

Additionally, studies have suggested that the removal of highly lethal means, such as jumping barriers on bridges or installing barriers on high-risk sites, can contribute to reductions in suicide rates.

These examples highlight the importance of considering the means available for suicide and implementing effective public health measures to restrict access to lethal methods.

It's important to note that addressing the underlying social and mental health factors contributing to suicide is crucial for comprehensive suicide prevention efforts.

Note: If you are in a mental health crisis, please call the suicide hotline number in your country. And know that you are loved.


The "coal gas story" speaks to the significant drop in suicide rates in Britain in the late 1960s following the government's transition from coal gas to natural gas.

Coal gas, commonly used in households, contained a high concentration of carbon monoxide, providing a lethal means for suicide.

The introduction of less toxic natural gas unintentionally rendered the method less accessible, contributing to a substantial reduction in suicide rates during that period.

Special Thanks to my friend Mark Slatin for the idea for this story.

The lessons here:

  1. Means Matter in Suicide Prevention: The coal gas story underscores the importance of restricting access to lethal means for suicide. When a highly toxic method became less available due to a change in household gas composition, suicide rates significantly decreased.

  2. Unintended Consequences: The reduction in suicide rates in Britain was an unintended consequence of a technological change. This teaches us that seemingly unrelated policy decisions or technological shifts can have significant implications for public health, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach to address potential consequences.

  3. Holistic Suicide Prevention: While changes in means can have a substantial impact on suicide rates, addressing the broader societal and mental health factors contributing to suicide is crucial. The coal gas story emphasizes the need for a holistic approach to suicide prevention that includes mental health support, awareness, and intervention strategies alongside measures to limit access to lethal means.