Sep 17, 2005

Bag Boys: Inhalant Abuse Among Teens


“Jason” is a twenty something Toledoan who is a former abuser of inhalants. He agreed to an interview with a request for anonymity.

“This isn’t exactly the thing you want to broadcast,” he said. “I have a job and parents, and I’m sure that they would not want to see me in the paper like this.”

Media attention to drug abuse tends to focus on illegal substances like heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.

Little notice, however, is paid to a growing underground phenomenon, chiefly among teenagers. Inhalant abuse, or “huffing,” utilizes common household products such as glue, nail polish remover, spray paint, deodorant, whipped cream canisters, and cleaning fluids.

Jason said that he began the habit at age 15, starting by huffing gasoline.

“That’s a harsh buzz, but it’s cheap and easy to get,” he said. “It gives you hallucinations like LSD.”

One of the most popular inhalants, according to Jason, is a computer keyboard cleaner called Duster.

“We called it getting ‘dusted’,” he said. “It makes you completely numb, like laughing gas.”

One method of getting high with inhalants involves filling a paper bag with the contents of an aerosol can. Jason said that this solves two problems.

“With a bag, you can keep the fumes contained,” he said. “Plus, you don’t get paint or whatever else is in the can all over your face.”

The Hidden Crisis

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 22.9 million Americans have abused inhalants. More startling is the data on teenagers, as a NIDA study concluded that 17.3% of the nation’s 8th graders have abused inhalants.

Three percent of US fourth graders have already “huffed,” beginning what for some will be a lifelong career as addicts.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that there were 979,000 new abusers of inhalants in 2000, and that the nation’s emergency rooms see thousands of cases of inhalant abuse each year.

Jason, who attended Bedford and Toledo Public schools, said that many people are unaware of how common huffing is.

“At least 20 percent of the kids I went to school with huffed,” he said. “It was even worse in Toledo, because a lot of girls use in Toledo.”

James Perrin, program manager of Connecting Point’s residential unit, said that inhalant abuse is a significant problem in Northwest Ohio.

“We have seen teenagers who started as young as 11,” he said, adding that his facility works with children 13 and older. “Huffing is common because because kids can just look in mom’s pantry and find all sorts of ways to get high.”

Abuse of inhalants cuts across most demographic boundaries, and is both an urban and rural problem. The only common denominators are a history of childhood abuse, difficulties in school, and relative poverty.

Jason said that inhalant abusers can be hard to spot.

“In school kids used to keep Whiteout bottles in their desk,” he said. “Some used to soak their sleeves in lighter fluid and sniff.”

Another method, according to Perrin, involves dipping a rag in gasoline.

“They keep the rag with them and inhale from the rag,” he said. “That way there is no obvious sign of abuse.”

Perrin said that users also tend to have concurrent mental health issues.

“Many abuse inhalants to escape,” he said. “Huffing can also lead abuse of illegal street drugs -often the kids are doing other drugs such as marijuana or alcohol.”

Jason agreed that inhalants can be a gateway drug.

“Huffing is definitely a gateway,” he said. “Once you start with something hard like huffing, you will try almost anything. I graduated from huffing to pot, coke, and almost anything you can imagine.”

Physical Destruction

While no drug is without its long- and short-term side effects, perhaps no behavior is more injurious to the human body than huffing.

Immediate consequences include asphyxiation, choking, seizures, and coma. Medical practitioners have developed a new term in response to the deaths of huffers: “sudden sniffing death syndrome.” The syndrome can occur in seemingly healthy teenagers as early as the first experience.

A 17-year old California teen named Josh Edmond died this month from the syndrome, overdosing from intoxicants inhaled from a keyboard cleaner called Blastaway.

Perrin said that many inhalant abusers are not recognized as such until an emergency.

“Many of our kids come to us after a trip to the ER,” he said. “They get brought to the hospital because they passed out or for a toxin-related illness.”

Abusers who avoid instantaneous death face severe long-term effects, including damage to the brain, lungs, heart, kidneys, and liver. Researchers have also documented many cases of hearing and vision loss, and extensive inhalant abuse can induce severe dementia.

Jason said that he knew people who went through detox programs for their inhalant habits.

“One kid I knew had to go through an inpatient treatment place,” he said. “He could not stop getting high.”

Connecting Point’s Perrin said that inhalant abuse tends to be highly addictive.

“It is difficult to break the habit because inhalants are everywhere,” he said. “Even if parents lock up all aerosols, all kids have to do is go to a friend’s house or steal a few cans.”

New research has also shown a link between inhalant abuse and destruction of the body’s immune system, and other researchers are exploring links between huffing and cancer.

Jason said that teens disregard the dangers of huffing for a variety of reasons.

“First of all, they are just stupid,” he said of huffing’s harmful effects. “They think that nothing bad will ever happen to them, and they just like the feeling.”

Peer pressure, according to Jason, is also a factor.

“It’s just like any drug – if you are around people doing it, you will join in,” he said. “Pass a bottle, pass a joint, or pass the bag – it’s all the same.”

This is an extended version of an article I wrote for the Toledo Free Press in July.


Anonymous said...

this is disturbing

Anonymous said...

Why do people do this to themselves?

Hooda Thunkit said...

“That’s a harsh buzz, but it’s cheap and easy to get,” he said. “It gives you hallucinations like LSD.”

How would Jason know that huffing gasoline gave you ”hallucinations like LSD,” unless…

Likewise for Duster… “It makes you completely numb, like laughing gas.”

”I graduated from huffing to pot, coke, and almost anything you can imagine.”

No surprise here. an equal opportunity abuser.

These children are bored, causing them to seek their own excitement and entertainment.

This, in a land where they have everything they could possibly hope for (except for maybe the affection and attention of involved and loving parents).

How totally avoidable.
How truly sad…