Harvey Weiss learns of at least 100 children each year who die from chemical abuse — not from alcohol or illicit drugs but from inhaling common household chemicals. “And these are just the people who call me,” Weiss says. “I know that there are even more parents out there who are losing kids to inhalants.”
Weiss directs the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), a nonprofit organization that sponsors National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week, March 17-23, 2002.
Weiss's organization focuses on substances with chemical vapors that produce a mind-altering effect when inhaled. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) groups these substances into four categories:
- Volatile solvents include paint thinners and removers, dry-cleaning fluids, degreasers, gasoline, glues, correction fluids, and felt-tip marker fluids.
- Aerosols include spray paints, deodorant and hair sprays, vegetable oil sprays for cooking, and fabric protector sprays.
- Nitrites are used primarily to enhance sex. Room odorizers contain one form of nitrite. Another form, amyl nitrite, is sometimes prescribed for heart pain. Illegal samples of amyl nitrite are called “poppers” or “snappers.”
- Gases include ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”). Butane lighters, propane tanks, whipped cream dispensers, and refrigerants contain gases that can be inhaled.
Many of these substances are legal and available right off the shelf at many stores.
Methods of inhalation vary. Users might snort fumes from open containers or spray aerosols directly into their mouth. Other users prefer “bagging” (sniffing fumes from chemicals stored inside a plastic or paper bag) or “huffing” from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth.
Inhalants typically produce a powerful high that lasts only a few minutes. Abusers often try to prolong the effect by inhaling repeatedly for several hours. This practice is dangerous and can lead to Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome — something that can happen the very first time an otherwise healthy child abuses inhalants.
“Even a single session of repeated inhalant abuse can disrupt heart rhythms and cause death from cardiac arrest or lower oxygen levels enough to cause suffocation,” notes Alan Leshner, PhD, former director of NIDA. “Regular abuse of these substances can result in serious harm to vital organs, including the brain, heart, kidneys, and liver.”
According to the Monitoring the Future studies sponsored by NIDA, 18 percent of eighth-graders have abused inhalants at least once. About 6 percent of U.S. children have tried inhalants by the time they reach fourth grade. Several factors associated with inhalant abusers include poverty, a history of childhood abuse, poor grades, and dropping out of school.
The good news is inhalant use among teens has declined steadily since 1995 — an indication that prevention efforts by NIPC and similar organization are paying off.
Parents have a pivotal role to play in prevention. “Especially with young children, I would suggest that parents talk about these substances within the context of poisons as opposed to talking about them as drugs,” says Weiss. “Parents tend to talk to their kids early on about poisons, and addressing these substances as poisons offers a real comfortable way to deal with the topic.”
Even so, Weiss adds, nine out of 10 parents do not believe that their child will use an inhalant. That means teachers and school nurses must also explain the dangers of inhalant abuse. Education about this topic can start in preschool and continue through high school.
In addition, parents and educators alike need to recognize signs of inhalant abuse, such as:
- Stains on clothing or the body from paint or other chemicals.
- Spots and sores around the month.
- Breath with a chemical odor.
- Nausea and loss of appetite.
- Anxiety and irritability.
To learn more about this topic and to obtain materials about National Inhalants & Poisons Awareness Week, contact the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition at (800) 269-4237. The organization's web site — www.inhalants.org offers an overview of the problem as well as prevention tips geared to children at various age levels.
Alive & Free is a chemical health column provided by Hazelden, a nonprofit agency based in Center City, Minn., that offers a wide range of information and services relating to addiction and recovery. For more resources on substance abuse, call Hazelden at 1-800-257-7800 or check its Web site at www.hazelden.org.