Death resulting from plastic bag asphyxia has been recognized for >40 years, but relatively little is known about either its epidemiology or its pathophysiology. Over 15 years (1984-1998), 30 deaths were attributed to plastic bag asphyxia among the 14,560 autopsies performed in the Forensic Medicine Unit in Edinburgh. These 30 deaths involved 20 male and 10 female subjects, with an age range of 13 to 81 years. Eleven had some alcohol measurable in the blood, with four having levels >80 mg/dl. Only one individual appeared to have ingested a drug overdose, but inhaled substances within the plastic bag may have contributed to death in five cases. The absence of childhood accidental deaths may reflect successful preventive measures. The 3 accidental deaths involved adults (including 2 who died of autoerotic asphyxia), and the remaining deaths were 27 suicides. Of those who committed suicide, most (59%) had chronic psychiatric illness rather than chronic debilitating or terminal physical illness. In contrast with reports from the United States, publicity associated with "self-deliverance" did not result in an increased number of deaths from plastic bag asphyxia (4 deaths in this series). Analysis of the circumstances of all the deaths revealed them to be difficult to predict and hence prevent.