Toxicological analysis after asphyxia suicide with helium and a plastic bag

Institute of Legal Medicine, University Hospital Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany. <>
Forensic science international (Impact Factor: 2.14). 09/2007; 170(2-3):139-41. DOI: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2007.03.027
Source: PubMed


A 23-year-old man was found on a raised hide in lying position, the head wrapped in a plastic bag connected with a helium gas cylinder by a polypropylene tube. The autopsy did not show any specific findings nor did the routine toxicological analysis reveal significant information regarding the cause of death (BAC 0.9 mg/g, diphenhydramine 0.81 microg/ml in heart serum). For the detection of helium in the lungs, gas samples from both lungs were collected by a method ensuring minimal dilution. Gas analyses were performed using a GC-MS with a split-splitless injector and a headspace syringe. As carrier gas the commonly used helium was replaced by nitrogen. Helium was found in clearly elevated concentrations in gas samples from both lungs. Therefore, suffocation by breathing helium enriched, and thus oxygen deficient atmosphere, can strongly be assumed as the cause of death.

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Available from: Volker Auwärter
    • "The detection of helium in specimens from the deceased in such cases may be of value to tentatively distinguish between helium exposure, exposure to a merely oxygen-deficient atmosphere and external obstruction as the mechanism of death, but there are, to the author's knowledge, no established procedures for quantitative measurement and interpretation of helium levels in body fluids or tissues. Several methods for helium detection in bronchopulmonary air samples have been published, using headspace gas chromatography-mass spectrometry with nitrogen or hydrogen as carrier gas101112. These methods, however, require special techniques and equipment at autopsy and laboratory analyses, and have not been refined and validated for routine application. "

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    ABSTRACT: Introduction Volatiles are easily accessible and widely used in a form of liquid petroleum gas. Death as a consequence of inhalation of volatiles can be either accidental or suicidal. Case Outline We present a 62-year-old men who committed suicide by placing a plastic bag over the head and inhaling propane-butane mixture from a domestic gas tank. A rubber hose was attached to the tank valve and connected with the plastic bag. The body of the deceased showed signs of advanced postmortal changes. A suicidal note was found at the scene. Conclusion Propane-butane mixture, i.e. liquified petroleum gas leads to the depletion of oxygen in the air consequently causing hypoxia and anoxia, and therefore, unconsciousness and eventual death. The mechanisms of death in cases of volatile inhalation include cardiac arrhythmias, reflex cardiac vagal inhibition, and/or central nervous system depression. Similar mechanisms occur in cases of asphyxiation with a plastic bag. The reconstruction of the event in this case was based, not so much on autopsy findings (because of significant putrefaction changes), but on the police investigation and traces found at the scene. .
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