1. Main points

  • Between 2001 and 2020, there were 716 deaths related to volatile substances registered in England and Wales, with an average of 36 deaths each year.

  • There were 25 deaths related to volatile substances registered in 2020; this is the same as 2019 and has remained broadly stable over time.

  • Between 2001 and 2020, most deaths related to volatile substances registered were among males (77.9%).

  • Fuels were the most common volatile substances mentioned on the death certificate, involved in 59.5% of deaths between 2001 and 2020, with butane (involved in 324 deaths) and propane (123 deaths) being the most frequently specified substances.

  • Nitrous oxide was the third most mentioned substance on the death certificate after butane and propane, with 56 deaths registered between 2001 and 2020, and 45 of those having been registered since 2010.

  • The most common causes of death were mental and behavioural disorders and accidental poisoning.

  • Between 2001 and 2020, there were 646 deaths registered involving helium and 103 deaths involving nitrogen in England and Wales.


Because of changes in methodology, figures for 2001 to 2016 have been revised since the last publication of deaths related to volatile substances. For more information see Section 8: Data sources and quality.

Back to table of contents

5. Deaths involving helium or nitrogen in England and Wales

This section will discuss deaths involving helium and nitrogen (both inert gases) even though they are not volatile substances. In England and Wales, there were 646 deaths involving helium between 2001 and 2020, and 103 deaths involving nitrogen.

As shown in Figure 5, deaths involving helium and nitrogen have been increasing over the past 20 years. Between 2001 and 2010, there were 87 deaths involving helium and four involving nitrogen. Between 2011 and 2020, there were 559 deaths involving helium and 99 involving nitrogen. Most deaths involving these substances registered between 2001 and 2020 were among males (83.4% of helium-related deaths and 91.3% of nitrogen-related deaths).

The number of deaths involving helium fell in 2019 and 2020, there were 28 deaths involving helium registered in 2020, which represents the lowest total since 2009.

Back to table of contents

7. Glossary

Volatile substance abuse (VSA)

The deliberate inhalation of volatile compounds to produce psychoactive effects.

Age-standardised mortality rate

Age-standardised mortality rate in this article refers to a weighted average of the age-specific mortality rates per million people and standardised to the 2013 European Standard Population. They allow for differences in the age structure of populations and therefore allow valid comparisons to be made between geographical areas, the sexes and over time.

Age-specific mortality rate

Age-specific mortality rate is the total number of deaths per million people of a particular age group, used to allow comparisons between specified age groups.

Back to table of contents

8. Data sources and quality

Statistics on mortality are derived from the information provided when deaths are certified and registered. Quality and methodology information is available in the Mortality statistics in England and Wales Quality and Methodology Information (QMI), and the User guide to mortality statistics.

Statistics are based on the year of death registration. Because of death registration delays, around half of these deaths will have occurred in previous years to which they were registered in, and the majority will have occurred before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the UK.

Definition of a volatile substance, helium, or nitrogen-related death

Deaths are included where the underlying cause of death was one of those in Table 3 and at least one volatile substance (or helium or nitrogen) was mentioned in the coroner’s text. They do not include all adverse effects of these substances, for example, accidents caused by an individual being under the influence of a volatile substance.

Substance categories

Substances mentioned on the death certificate by substance category:


  • Butane
  • Butene
  • Chloroethane
  • Diethyl ether
  • Fuel gas
  • Hydrocarbon
  • Isobutan
  • Isopentane
  • Lighter fluid
  • Lighter fuel
  • Lighter gas
  • Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)
  • Petrol fumes
  • Propane


  • Aerosol
  • Air freshener
  • Deodorant
  • Fabric protection spray

Nitrous oxide

  • Nitrous oxide


  • Chloroform
  • Isoflurane
  • Sevoflurane

Alkyl nitrites

  • Alkyl nitrite
  • Amyl nitrate
  • Isobutyl nitrate

Specified solvents

  • Acetone
  • Dichloromethane
  • Glue
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Toluene
  • Trichloroethylene
  • Turpentine
  • White spirit
  • Xylene
  • Benzene

Other volatile substance, specified

  • Chlorodifluoromethane
  • Printer cleaner
  • Trichloroethanol

Volatile substance, unspecified

  • Volatile substance
  • Solvent

Changes since the previous publication

Figures for the period 2001 to 2016 have been revised since the previous release. This is because of the following changes in the methodology:

  • mentions of unspecified “gas” on death certificates have now been excluded because without further context we cannot know what this refers to

  • mentions of “natural gas” have been excluded because it is not a substance with the potential for psychoactive effects

  • previously, nitrogen and nitrous oxide were grouped together as “nitrogen-related” and counted as volatile substances; we have now removed “nitrogen” from the volatile substance category

Back to table of contents

Contact details for this Article

Paul Breen and Beth Manders
Telephone: +44 1633 455148