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Suicide With Inert Gases: Addendum to Final Exit

Gilson, Thomas MD; Parks, Bruce O. MD; Porterfield, Cynthia M. DO

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: September 2003 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 306-308
doi: 10.1097/01.paf.0000083363.24591.5d
Case Report

Suicide by asphyxiation with a plastic bag placed over the head is a method that has been advocated by right-to-die groups. Recently, such groups have proposed the introduction of helium into the plastic bag as a means of hastening death. Helium is readily available at toy stores, where it is sold in tanks for balloon inflation. It produces asphyxiation by the exclusion of oxygen in enclosed spaces. We report 7 fatalities throughout an 18-month period involving plastic bag suffocation in conjunction with helium use. These fatalities coincide with publication of an update to a popular right-to-die text in which this method is described. Although right-to-die literature was absent from all scenes, this method was not previously observed in our jurisdiction, and the deaths likely reflect exposure to this information. Because of analytical difficulties in testing for helium in biologic specimens, death certification rests on scene investigation.

From the Office of the Medical Examiner, Tucson, Arizona.

Manuscript received December 12, 2002 accepted April 4, 2003.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Cynthia M. Porterfield, D.O., Forensic Science Center, 2825 E. District Street, Tucson, AZ 85714 E-mail: cpfield@pol.net

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.