Helium poisoning: new procedure for sampling and analysis

  • Vincent VarletEmail author
  • S. Iwersen-Bergmann
  • M. Alexandre
  • O. Cordes
  • C. Wunder
  • F. Holz
  • H. Andresen-Streichert
  • F. Bevalot
  • V. Dumestre-Toulet
  • S. Malbranque
  • T. Fracasso
  • S. Grabherr
Original Article


An increasing number of suicidal asphyxiation with a plastic bag with inert gases, and in particular helium (He), have been reported from numerous countries over the last decade. These cases are differently managed and lead to different and variable interpretations. Based on the 12 last cases analysed in the laboratory and on the review of the most recent literature about this topic, updated autopsy guidelines for sampling have been proposed regarding to the samples choice and analytical challenges required by the gaseous state of this substance. Biological samples from airways (lungs lobe) followed by brain and cardiac blood are the best matrices to take during the autopsy to diagnose He exposure. Gaseous samples from trachea, pulmonary bronchi, gastric and cardiac areas are also recommended as alternative samples. The anatomical site of sampling must be carefully detailed, and to this end, forensic imaging constitutes a beneficial tool. Even if He detection is sufficient to conclude to He exposure, He concentrations in samples may be related to He exposure conditions (duration, breathing rate, etc.). A quantification in biological samples could be helpful to document more precisely the case. He concentrations in gaseous samples are reported up to 6.0 μmol/mL (tracheal gas), 2.4 μmol/mL (pulmonary gas), 0.64 μmol/mL (cardiac gas) and 12 μmol/mL (gastric gas). He concentrations in solid/liquid samples are reported up to 28 μmol/g (lungs) and 0.03 μmol/g (cardiac blood). The other matrices usually sampled during autopsy such as urine, peripheral blood, liver, fat matter and kidney appear as not relevant.


Helium Suicide Suffocation Asphyxia GC-MS 


Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Vincent Varlet
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • S. Iwersen-Bergmann
    • 3
  • M. Alexandre
    • 4
  • O. Cordes
    • 5
  • C. Wunder
    • 6
  • F. Holz
    • 6
  • H. Andresen-Streichert
    • 7
  • F. Bevalot
    • 8
  • V. Dumestre-Toulet
    • 9
  • S. Malbranque
    • 10
  • T. Fracasso
    • 11
  • S. Grabherr
    • 11
  1. 1.Forensic Toxicology and Chemistry UnitUniversity Centre of Legal MedicineLausanneSwitzerland
  2. 2.Swiss Human Institute of Forensic TaphonomyUniversity Centre of Legal MedicineLausanneSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Legal MedicineUniversity Medical Centre Hamburg-EppendorfHamburgGermany
  4. 4.Department of Forensic MedicineMontpellier University HospitalMontpellierFrance
  5. 5.Bremen Mitte ClinicInstitute of Forensic MedicineBremenGermany
  6. 6.Institute of Legal MedicineUniversity Hospital FrankfurtFrankfurt am MainGermany
  7. 7.Faculty of Medicine, Institute of Legal Medicine, Department of Forensic ToxicologyUniversity of CologneKölnGermany
  8. 8.Laboratoire LAT LUMTOXLyonFrance
  9. 9.Laboratoire TOXGENBordeauxFrance
  10. 10.Department of Forensic MedicineAngers University HospitalAngersFrance
  11. 11.Forensic Pathology UnitUniversity Centre of Legal MedicineGenevaSwitzerland

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