The helium suicide method has been used widely, including reportedly by reputable organisations like Dignitas. (Dignitas now uses only a drink of 15 grams of pentobarbital sodium: trade name Nembutal). The helium method is based on the fact that breathing inert gas like helium does not produce any feeling of suffocation, but depletes the body of oxygen, leading to loss of consciousness and death.
Compared to other methods:
All parts (helium tank, plastic tubing etc) can be legally bought and possessed.
Can be done at home, at one's own convenience.
Does not put others at risk.
Complete setup requires significant amount of handiwork.
Some people find having plastic bags over their heads disgusting.
One's application of the method must be very technically accurate in order to succeed.
- 1 General guide (specific instructions are given later on)
- 2 Animal studies
- 3 Cause of death
- 4 THE METHOD
- 5 If using a T-connector instead of a flow regulator
- 6 Time of death info
- 7 Reports of failures:analysis of the causes,and insights of how to avoid it
- 7.1 Report on failure - 1
- 7.2 Report of a failure - 2
- 7.3 Report of a failure - 3
- 7.4 Report of a failure - 4
- 7.5 Report of a failure - 5
- 7.6 Report of a failure - 6
- 8 FAQ and common discussions
- 8.1 Calculations
- 8.2 Which purity of helium is needed?
- 8.3 But if the helium runs out wouldn't I suffocate?
- 8.4 Q: How is removing CO2 going to kill you?
- 8.5 Q: What final exit says and what's missing there?
- 8.6 Q: Some issues which may arise when buying the balloon kit tank?
- 8.7 Q: What is most important to take care of before pulling the bag over the head?
- 9 References
General guide (specific instructions are given later on)
Probably the easiest way to use inert gases for suicide is to enter a tube tent with a gas cylinder, flush the tent with any of the three gases, and seal the ends of the tube. The volume of a tent is such that you won't produce enough carbon dioxide to stimulate breathing reflexes before dying. Since there's little or no residual oxygen in the breathing mixture, minimal amounts of carbon dioxide ought to be exhaled, suggesting that a large inert gas-filled plastic bag over the head should work as well as the tube tent.
In experiments, animals (dogs, cats, rabbits, mink, chickens) show little or no evidence of distress from inert gas asphyxia, become unconscious after one to two minutes, and die after three to five minutes. Thus, use of any of these three gases, combined with a plastic bag, should be less traumatic than plastic bag asphyxia alone, since there will be little discomfort from carbon dioxide buildup and unconsciousness will be swift.
Cause of death
Inhalation of 100% pure helium (which is not mixed with oxygen) causes rapid death due to oxygen deprivation (since the helium displaces the oxygen). When breathing pure helium inside a plastic bag, unconsciousness follows after about 5 breaths. In 62 cases where "time to unconsciousness" was reported, the average was 35 seconds (range 10-120 seconds). Death will often follow in about 10 minutes, sometimes as quickly as 5 minutes. Elapsed "time to death" was reported in 108 cases. The average was 13 minutes (range was 2 to 40 minutes).
A tank of pure helium.
According to the book Guide to a Humane Self-Chosen Death written by Dr. Pieter Admiraal and a committee of medical professionals, nearly all 119 reported cases used non-refillable party balloon kits. A small tank [4.5 cu ft/125 liters] is sufficient to bring about death if breathed in a plastic bag. To be sure, I would go for 8.9 cu ft [250 liters, the following size], assuming that the tank is new and full, and that there are no leaks in the bag.
The book Final exit recommended taking few Valiums to contract convulsions and so; however, Dr. Admiraal from the Dutch euthanasia group says in his book that: "to be sure that one does not make any errors in the procedure, pills are not recommended". I tend to agree here with the Dutch booklet, since, falling into any sleep may cause you to take off the bag or miss some details. Case Reports regarding sleeping pills with helium in 31 reported cases, the patient took no meds at all. No complications were reported and time to death was not influenced.
- Helium tank.8.9 cu ft (250 liters) or more
- Oven roasting bag (19x24 Inch =45x60cm)
- Soft plastic hose/tubing 3 meters. The tubing must fit snugly over the tank nozzle. For most party balloon kits it requires tubing with an inner diameter of 3/8 or 5/16 inch (8.0mm - 9.5mm)
- A sweat-band that fits around the forehead
How to adjust the hose to the tank
- Take off the plastic nozzle of the tank. (Use any type of pliers for this. You can also do it carefully with a carpet knife if you have trouble finding out what type of plier to use).
- Put the end of the plastic pipe in warm water for some minutes to make it softer.
- Connect the hose to the tank and make sure it is fits tightly. Use a half inch (1.27 cm) hose clamp (you can get it in hardware stores) and adjust it with a screwdriver (preferably a flathead). If you're using a "Y"-tube for two tanks, remember to take the tube through the clamp before fitting the tube to the tank (if the clamp can't be opened).
- Check the bag for holes or leaks, for example by gently filling it with air.
What if you buy the tank from other sources?
If you buy directly from a helium supplier, you should buy a regulator from them as well in order to control the gas flow. Never buy other than a new tank of helium, since you can never know otherwise if the tank is full. The Dutch euthanasia group advises practicing the procedure without helium so that you make sure you know exactly how to do it.
Note that testing is problematic; if you get one of the consumer helium tanks, you will most likely have a nozzle that won't shut completely, so if you perform a test of helium output with such a tank, you might eventually lose all of the helium before your actual exit date. However, a helium tank from a commercial helium supplier should not have this problem.
- Position: since the helium tends to rise, the exiter should sit so that the top half of their body is vertical.
- Open the valve and close it immediately. That's for the first opening of the tank.
- Place the bag on your head such that the margins of the bag cover only the ears and forehead.
- Now, the most important thing is to get the air out of the bag. If you have air there, you won't lose consciousness quickly. Most literature recommends doing it by squeezing the bag with both hands on your head to deplete the air. However, I suggest that this way there is a good option that air would be present. Alternatively, you can simply put the bag on a flat surface, roll it back and forth to get all the air out and then close it tight. Then, still holding the bag tightly closed, place the bag with the band back on your forehead and ears. By doing so, you are more likely to get rid of all the air.
- Now, open the valve and let the bag inflate with helium. You should now be prepared to pull the opening of the bag with the band over your head. The rubber should not be too tight since you need to leave some room for the CO2 you exhale, to get out of the bag through the bottom.
- Now, VERY IMPORTANT: The Dutch group recommends to exhale all the air in your lungs BEFORE pulling the bag over your head. There is logic here, since you need to get rid of all CO2 in your lungs. So you need now to make a big exhalation, then hold your breath, pull the inflated bag over your head with the band, and now, you should take a very deep breath (of the Helium in this inflated bag), when inside the bag.
- Continue to breathe normally, unconsciousness should follow quite quickly.
Statistics and case reports
According to Pieter Admiraal's book, in 119 reported successful cases using helium and a plastic bag: Nearly all cases used a non-refillable balloon kit, although it is less reliable than any industrial-sized tank. In 62 cases where "time to unconsciousness" was measured and reported by an eyewitness, the average was 35 seconds [10-120 range] in cases where it took longer than average, it was reported that there were difficulties with gas flow, leaking tube/nozzle connections, or improper seal between the neck and the bag. That's why good preparation is needed, says the Dutch group.
If using a T-connector instead of a flow regulator
If using a T-shaped connector to join the flow of two disposable helium tanks, make sure to use one made of PLASTIC or VINYL. A T-connector is often sold as a "hose barb" or a "garden hose tee". The right size (if using tubing of 1/2" OD and 1/8" ID) is 1/8" OD so the tubing will fit OVER the T-connector perfectly. T-connectors look something like this: http://i.imgur.com/piqQo.jpg. Often sold in the PVC isle of a hardware store.
Time of death info
Time to death was reported in 108 cases --- the average was 13 minutes [range 2-40 minutes]. Muscle contractions were reported in half the case reports. It happened between 2 to 8 minutes into the procedure. Arms and legs will tighten and relax few times for about 10 seconds to 2 minutes duration. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to remove the bag. Those contractions are common in anesthesia in surgery settings. Witnesses of several cases with helium said that they have never seen a case in which the hands reached the plastic bag. Patient is unconscious in this stage. Deep gasps are common in the unconscious stage. In 31 cases in which no meds were in used it was found that there is no correlation between meds and contractions. In 11 cases contractions were present while in 7 none were present.
Reports of failures:analysis of the causes,and insights of how to avoid it
Report on failure - 1
Explanations: What might have happened?
The man describes what he has done: "What I had done, was place the bag over my whole head/face, ran the hoses up into it, pulled the rubber band down around my neck, and held the rubber bands away from my neck to continue breathing air until I was ready."
Mistakes done: That means he had a good breath of air in his lungs when went went in (as he DID NOT exhale first as he should, in order to deplete the lungs from CO2). Moreover -- there was probably quite a bit of oxygen in the bag as well, since the man did not emptied the bag BEFORE streaming helium in.
General inferences, following that case:
The main goal when using an inert gas, is to have a sudden and intense exposure to the gas. You need to make the best you can to make sure that no oxygen or carbon dioxide is in there to contaminate the helium, with your first few intakes of breath you will be inhaling nearly-pure helium. This is what is required for a quick loss of consciousness. if you proceed by piping helium into a bag (or tent) which currently contains air, that would be quite disastrous -- for a long time there would be enough oxygen to support consciousness, and that consciousness would become very unpleasant before it vanished.
Report of a failure - 2
Explanations: What might have happened?
I knew of one other person who did not lose consciousness quickly and who felt significant panic (enough to make her stop). In her case I think it may have been because the helium was contaminated with oxygen-containing room air. She wanted to use 3 tanks, to be sure that the helium would not run out too soon, but she joined the various tubing pieces with T-connectors intended for use with copper plumbing pipe. These connectors went on the outside of the tubing rather than on the inside (she had not managed to find the kind that goes inside the tubing, and the hardware-store person told her that the plumbing connectors would be just as good). She put lots of tape over each place where a connector lay over the tubing, but she used electrical tape, which does not have a high degree of stickiness (not as high as duct tape, for instance). There were quite a few of these possibly-leaky connections, and I think that perhaps wherever the helium flowed past a connection it (pulled in) some room air.
Also, this above person may have skipped thoroughly forcing all room air out of the bag before filling it with helium, and thoroughly evacuating the lungs by doing a big "Whoof!" immediately before pulling the bag down.
If the first thing is not done, there can be quite a bit of oxygen left in the bag, and if the second thing is not done, there can be quite a bit of carbon dioxide. Breathing carbon dioxide causes panic. However, panic can accompany rapid loss of consciousness even in the (relative) absence of carbon dioxide (I felt it when I passed out from ether, though only for a couple of seconds).
Report of a failure - 3
Explanations: What might have happened?
When somebody does not lose conscious shortly, it is due to excess of oxygen in the bag. It usually happen when the bag is not previously completely depleted out of all the air. That should be done before any helium is blown into the bag. Residual oxygen will make you experience the side effects. Now, as to the panic itself, I would attribute it to a CO2 build up. One should not complexly close the marginal of the bag, and only use a slightly tightened band, to let the CO2 escape from the bottom. During the first attempt, this guy got into a kind of a "tent". This imposes a problem since you have large amount of oxygen there, and you need to either deplete it first, or to create a very strong and steady stream for that.
Report of a failure - 4
Explanations: What might have happened?
14.9 cu ft of helium should be well sufficient for succeeding. While Final Exit recommends 1-2 tanks of 9 cu. feet, it was proven that even 4.9 cu ft should be enough. moreover, the Dutch euthanasia group, recommended, following more than 120 case reports, to avoid using more than one tank, since there is a great chance that the connectors would create a leak, if you use more than one tank. It is indeed recommended to make sure the regulator of the tank is at least turned to a one third [full guide is given] to allow sufficient flow of helium. However, using sedatives is not recommended in this method as it may increase the chances to fail, as you are likely to miss some of the accurate instructions if so. The moist and heat in the bag should be prevented once you open the valve sufficiently as instructed.
Report of a failure - 5
Explanations: What might have happened?
The first part can easily be dismissed as not ensuring everything would go off without a hitch, but the actual account of it seems disturbing. I know, I shouldn't be surprised it's not a party, but still.
I might be wrong, but this seems to lead to only one conclusion, that oxygen was leaping in from somewhere.
That seizures during the process are likely to occur seems to be inevitable, the question is, is the person aware of them or in any pain, when it happens (patient should be unconscious in that point)?
If a mask has been used it tends to be less effective in this method. The origin of the helium is another factor which may be missing.
Report of a failure - 6
Explanations: What might have happened?
Indeed, helium "escapes" quite quickly in any open space or such as not sealed well enough. Thus any possible leak, either in the tube or in any mask or so, may be a reason for such a failure. In addition, again, the man has not lost conscious, probably due to remnants of oxygen penetrating to the mask. That's why I would say a closed chamber would be better. [for this term, a plastic bag would be considered as a chamber of course]
Suggestion: I've heard people purchased the party balloon tanks only to find out when they got them home that the package had already been opened, and when used, found it to be empty. The problem here maybe returned tanks going back on the shelves. So check the package to see its been opened before, make sure its in a sealed box! You could also do a one balloon test. Tell the store you are purchasing it but want to make sure its not leaking, with permission open the valve, blow up one baloon.. if it fills quickly its working the way it should, tanks with leaks would fill a balloon slowly. Tighten the valve very tight once you are through.
FAQ and common discussions
An average person will breathe in and out about 12 to 20 times a minute . People who are tall and/or overweight will breathe more than someone who is short and/or thin (based on Body Surface Area, BSA). Each inhalation brings in about 500 ml of air, corresponding to 6 to 10 litres of air per minute, together with any contaminants that the air contains. Please note that people who smoke, and/or have pulmonary sickness will breathe almost 2-3 times more air than an average person .
In an average person, the respiratory rate in cubic feet per minute is (worst-case):
For a helium tank containing 14.9 cubic feet of helium, the tank should last:
For someone with asthma, or heart disease:
Making the 14.8 cu ft helium tank last:
Which purity of helium is needed?
Q: How important is the purity of the helium, and what's acceptable?
A: In general terms, balloon-grade helium is sufficient to cause death if it is the only gas an individual is breathing. Any gas that contains no oxygen will kill you if it's all you're breathing, but some gasses trigger unpleasant responses.
Q: What is the concern about CO2 in this method?
A: While it's true that any gas mixture without oxygen will black you out pretty quick, I need to add a minor correction about CO2: At concentrations > 30%, CO2 will drop you with little or no warning, even with 'normal' levels of oxygen. At higher concentrations, CO2 acts like an anesthetic and then kills rapidly. The 'unpleasant' effects all come from lower concentrations of CO2. CO2 kills unwary people all the time, including people who deliver it for soft drink fountains, people who hang out in low places near volcanic activity, people who work with agricultural waste, people who work in grain silos, people in coal mines, and people unfortunate enough to be near places like Lake Nyos when it gassed over. In most such cases, they were 'fine' one moment and unconscious the next.  
But if the helium runs out wouldn't I suffocate?
A: In a sealed-in area, yes you would, eventually. But you'd be more likely to suffocate from CO2 instead of helium, and CO2 suffocation - at least at a slower rates of air infusion - can be very unpleasant. The body's evolved some rather nasty responses to CO2 poisoning because it's a kind of poisoning virtually all oxygen-breathing mammals are prone to - choking, suffocation, etc.... The body has learned when CO2 levels increase, it needs to do whatever it can to make you breathe harder or clear your breathing passages, and so you convulse and cramp in all sorts of nasty, painful ways, Unless of course you can get just about immediately into a very high-concentration of CO2 quickly, where it can drop you pretty fast. But bags over the head relying on CO2 to do the job don't tend to work that well. The body has learned no such response to helium, and while in the early stages of helium, the body can still release CO2 for a time. More so than to acquire oxygen, the primary functions of breathing is to release CO2 from the body. It's the pressure to release CO2 that causes that "I thought my chest was going to explode" feeling in near-drowning victims. Acquiring oxygen is a secondary function of breathing - just as vital, but as strange as it may sound, you can survive longer without oxygen coming into your body than you can without being able to release CO2 (which you can't do if CO2 is what you're breathing - at best, you're shuffling individual CO2 molecules around, and the body doesn't know the difference between one that's already been through and one that's just arriving). Both functions are vital, of course, and we'd die in fairly short-order without the ability to do either one. But CO2 poisoning is the more critical issue to the body, which is why the body reacts to CO2 gas but not to certain other kinds of gas. Other inert, non-irritating gasses allow the continued release of CO2 for a time, which keeps the body off- guard for awhile. With those types of gasses, it's too late for the body to react by the time it realizes it's not receiving any more oxygen.
Q: How is removing CO2 going to kill you?
A: If you mean tanks that aren't filled O2, but rather nitrous oxide or helium, then there's no need for scrubbing out CO2. Helium doesn't become CHe when inhaled, it stays helium. Same with nitrous oxide. Your body doesn't convert the gas at all. The same breath of helium can be used over and over until you're dead.
Q: What final exit says and what's missing there?
A: The book (I sprung for it finally after failing) suggests running a tube from the helium tank to a plastic bag which is positioned on top of your head with a rubber band or such around your forehead to hold the bag in place. Let the bag fill with helium, EXHALE, and then pull the bag down over your face positioning the rubber band around your neck to hold it in place.
The type of bag you use may be an issue. Black bin bags are semi porous, so they can let air in even when sealed. Best to use something made of thick plastic like pencil cases are made from or shower curtains. Something without airholes of any size.
Q: Some issues which may arise when buying the balloon kit tank?
A: The gas tanks that are supplied for filling balloons have an unusual outlet. It consists of a spring-loaded nozzle, which when bent, opens a valve to allow the gas out. Filling the balloon in a matter of seconds. When the nozzle is released, the spring forces the nozzle back to the horizontal position and the metal plunger slides back against a stop, cutting off the gas flow. There is a master valve on the top of the cylinder too, but it doesn't allow for much flow regulation. In that case we recommend on getting a proper gas regulator valve, to replace the one on the cylinder. This is one of the reasons I prefer obtaining a proper helium gas directly from the helium supplier (all gas agencies would sell it to you). If they ask you why do you need it, you can obviously say you are starting maybe a party line, and you'd like to first buy a small tank [14.9 cu ft or so] to test is in a private party "to see how it goes". Most suppliers will offer the regulator immediately, thus preventing the extra hassle of taking care of it.
Q: What is most important to take care of before pulling the bag over the head?
A: It is important to make sure there's no air in the bag or in your lungs before starting. Having air in the bag would interfere with losing consciousness, while having air in your lungs would cause panic attack due to CO2 build up.
- Wikipedia article on Respiratory Rate
- Wikipedia article on breathing