Although the factors associated with mortality, such as forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1), arterial oxygen tension (Pa,O2) and pulmonary arterial pressure, have been well described, there is limited information on the circumstances of death in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The aim of this study was to investigate the causes and circumstances of death in patients with COPD and chronic respiratory failure (Pa,O2 < 8.0 kPa (60 mmHg) breathing air), treated with long-term oxygen therapy (LTOT). Ten European centres participated in the study and data were collected from patients both during a period of clinical stability and at the time of death. Of the 215 patients evaluated (161 males and 54 females; aged 66 +/- 10 yrs), the major causes of death were: acute on chronic respiratory failure (38%); heart failure (13%); pulmonary infection (11%); pulmonary embolism (10%); cardiac arrhythmia (8%); and lung cancer (7%). Seventy five percent of patients died in hospital. There was no difference in the number of patients who died in the morning, afternoon and night hours. Twenty percent of the total died during sleep and in 26% death was unexpected. A lower arterial carbon dioxide tension (Pa,CO2), less oxygen usage per 24 h, and increased incidence of arrhythmias were seen in those patients who died suddenly. Drug therapy was not related to unexpected death. The majority of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on long-term oxygen therapy died from chronic or acute on chronic respiratory failure. Prevention and treatment of respiratory failure in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is likely to have the greatest impact in reducing mortality.