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My one year old daughter picked up a typical plastic supermarket grocery bag and I watched her with it briefly before taking it away, as it's common knowledge that kids aren't supposed to have plastic bags due to a risk of suffocation.

After actually seeing a child with a bag, however, I wondered how much of a risk this actually is. I had a very hard time imagining my daughter being able to get her head inside of the bag to such a degree that she would actually suffocate.

I'm [hopefully obviously] not advocating for any controlled experiments here! I just wondered where this common, ingrained warning comes from. How real of a danger is it when children play with plastic bags?

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With an infant, its not so much getting inside the bag as it is getting thin plastic draped over the nose and mouth. The child tries to inhale, which just sucks the plastic tightly against the face. Older children usually have the dexterity to grip the plastic and remove it, but with infants, not always. –  Mike Elkins Oct 11 '11 at 20:04

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up vote 32 down vote accepted

According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission:

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has received an average of about 25 reports a year describing deaths to children who suffocated due to plastic bags. Almost 90 percent of them were under one year of age.

About 4 million children are born each year in the USA, with an infant mortality rate of 6.06/1000 live births. That's about 25000 dead infants each year, so about 0.1% of US infant mortality is due to suffocation in plastic bags. It's not a big number, obviously, but it's there (note: it may be higher if there are incidents which aren't reported to the CPSC).

An older paper, Polson & Gee (1972) gives a number of case studies.

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Thanks for the answer -- I like the extra work of not only finding deaths/year but connecting that to total births. Nice work. –  Hendy Oct 15 '11 at 17:19

Not only is it a real danger, but it is now common knowledge because the printed warning notices on plastic bags do actually work.

Source: Death rates per million children decreased significantly following California statute requiring all plastic bags with thickness less than 0.001 inch to have printed warning on bag.

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