June 22, 1970

Sudden Sniffing Death

Author Affiliations

From the Division of Forensic Pathology, Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, and the Maryland Medical Legal Foundation, Inc., Baltimore.

JAMA. 1970;212(12):2075-2079. doi:10.1001/jama.1970.03170250031004

An epidemic of 110 sudden sniffing deaths without plastic bag suffocation which occurred in American youths during the 1960's, appears to have originated on the West Coast. The incidence rate showed a sharp rise during the late 1960's. Volatile hydrocarbons most frequently involved were trichloroethane and fluorinated refrigerants. Sudden sniffing death occurred in all socioeconomic groups, with a preponderance in the suburban middle-income white family. Severe cardiac arrhythmia, resulting from light plane anesthesia, and intensified by hypercapnia or stress or activity or a combination of these, is the most likely explanation for sniffing death.