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Why are so many people dying in Canadian clothing donation bins?

National Post logo National Post 2019-01-08 Tristin Hopper

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(Video provided by CityNews)

Her screams alerted help, but it came too late to save the 35-year-old Toronto woman trapped in the chute of a clothing donation box early Tuesday morning.

The woman, identified only as Crystal, was dead by the time firefighters were able to cut her from the League For Human Rights drop box.

The death marks the second time in only eight days that a Canadian has died while apparently trying to remove items from a clothing-donation bin.

It’s the third such Canadian death since November, and at least the seventh since 2015.

a bicycle parked in front of a box: A Vancouver man attempting to remove items from a donation bin in this undated photo. © Gerry Kahrmann/Postmedia File A Vancouver man attempting to remove items from a donation bin in this undated photo.

With critics referring to the bins as “death traps,” charities and municipalities are taking drastic action to prevent more fatalities.

Diabetes Canada announced last week it is retrofitting all its clothing-donation bins to prevent death or injury in cases of misuse. Inclusion B.C. is removing all 146 of its B.C. bins, despite the expected revenue and job losses. The City of West Vancouver has ordered all its donation bins locked, while Burnaby, B.C., is asking for all bins to be removed from within its city limits.

The rash of clothing bin deaths seems to be uniquely Canadian. A search of news headlines from the past few years found only a handful of instances of bin deaths in Europe and the United States, despite their much larger populations.


The problem also seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon.

As recently as 2014, a person getting stuck inside a donation bin was so rare — and seemed so benign — that it was cause for jokes. “I think they should have left him in there, personally,” one East Vancouverite told a CTV news crew after a man in his 20s became trapped inside the main compartment of a bin for the Developmental Disabilities Association.

The next year, a well-known homeless advocate named Anita Hauck was killed in a Pitt Meadows clothing-donation bin as she tried to grab a jacket and a blanket for a fellow resident of a nearby tent city.

Ever since, Canada has not managed to go more than a few months without someone being fatally injured by a clothing bin, with countless more instances of people having to be rescued. The Vancouver area has seen the majority of incidents, although deaths have occurred in Calgary and Cambridge, Ont.


All victims were homeless or suffering from addiction issues, and appeared to have been trying to remove clothing from the bins. “She climbed to get clothing and got hung up and succumbed to her injuries,” Assistant Vancouver Fire Chief David Boone said after a woman was killed by a bin in the city’s West Point Grey neighbourhood.

They all died upside down; trapped in the bin’s chute with their feet sticking out. Some victims were not found until hours after their death. Others managed to scream for help but could not be extracted in time to save their lives.

The victims do not appear to have been seeking shelter in the boxes. In fact, most clothing-bin deaths have occurred in summer.

All the bins involved in fatalities have operated much like a standard Canada Post mailbox: A drawer folds down to accept donations and a security flap swings into place to prevent theft from the box.

By trying to climb in, someone can become pinched between the drawer and the security flap and suspended upside down within the bin.


“It’s far more hazardous than it may seem on the surface,” Jonathan Gormick, a spokesman with Vancouver Fire Rescue, told CBC in mid-2018.

Most deaths are due to respiratory impairment. The drawer mechanism constricts the victim’s torso, making it difficult to breathe. Being held upside down for long periods can also be fatal in itself; the victim can asphyxiate from the pressure of their organs weighing down on their lungs, or they can suffer a stroke as blood pools in their head.

Although the Canadian incidents have all been remarkably similar, bins can also kill by other means. In 2012, a woman in Staten Island, N.Y., had successfully entered the main compartment of a clothing-donation bin, but was strangled as she attempted to exit.

A particularly unusual fatality occurred in 2017 in Natalie, Penn. The victim, Judith Permar, was not a homeless person but was known to have a history of stealing from donation bins. On one such 2 a.m. run, Permar fell off a ladder that she was using to access a bin, catching her arm in the chute. The impact broke her arm and wrist, leaving her dangling in extreme pain, and she subsequently died of exposure.


Many of the Canadian bins killing people have retained the same design for decades without incident. RangeView Fabricating, a Toronto-based company that has manufactured some of the bins involved in fatal incidents, said Tuesday that its bins have operated without incident for most of the 25 years that they’ve been in operation.

In the wake of the recent bin deaths, however, the company has suspended manufacturing until it can conceive of a safer design. Meanwhile, the company is advising existing owners of its bins to remove security measures that could pinch a human in the chute.

“We’re kind of saying to our charities, ‘you’re going to have to deal with the theft because public safety is number one,’ ” company manager Brandon Agro told The Canadian Press. “If someone is going to go into your bin and take your product, that’s going to have to be how it is for now.”

In July 2017, after a man in his mid-20s died in a Calgary donation bin, a representative with the Cerebral Palsy Association in Alberta told Global News that they had noticed a rise in bin thefts.


Ray Taheri, an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, has been spearheading a design competition to make a safer clothing-donation bin. One idea involved a mechanism that would lock the bins if anything heavier than nine kilograms was put inside.

“It’s so sad that something so beautiful turns into something so tragic,” Taheri told Postmedia on Jan. 1, just days before the most recent death in Toronto.

• Twitter: | Email: thopper@nationalpost.com

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