Aspiration of gastric contents is a major complication in relation with the practice of anaesthesia. The present article is aimed at describing detailed data related to aspiration which were obtained during the French national survey on anaesthesia-related mortality conducted by both Sfar and CépiDC-Inserm. Information regarding methods of the survey and the main results has been previously published. In brief, the first part of the survey described the number and characteristics of anaesthetic procedures performed in 1996 (denominator). The second survey analysed deaths related to anaesthesia which were identified from death certificates of the calendar year 1999. Because of the numerical importance of aspiration among the causes of deaths, a secondary analysis was undertaken to assess into details factors leading to the occurrence of this complication. Eighty-three cases of death were found related to aspiration, i.e. one-fifth of deaths related completely or partially to anaesthesia, implying a death rate of one for 221,368 general anaesthetic procedures or 4.5 x 10(-6) (95% IC: 0.8 x 10(-6)-14 x 10(-6)). Patients involved were all in a severe clinical condition (ASA> or =3: 92%), very old and often scheduled for urgent abdominal surgery. Two cases of death occurred during colonoscopy but none in obstetric patients. Aspiration almost always occurred during induction of anaesthesia. Analysis of practice patterns disclosed significant deviations from recommendations. French anaesthetists should voluntarily move through a personal and active process toward an improvement of their practice to reduce the incidence of aspiration.