A long list of risk

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Add whipped cream, nail polish, rubber cement and room deodorizer to the list. Not the grocery list, but the list of chemicals some youths inhale to get high.

Fourteen hundred sources of inhalants sit unassuming under the kitchen sink, in the garage and classrooms.

Chuck says his inhalant addiction started at age 15 when he was in his room cleaning with the door and windows closed. All the chemicals he was spraying had nowhere to go but into his lungs. Chuck passed out from the fumes.

Chuck subsequently tried everything from bleach to Windex, but gasoline become his favorite.

"The first time I huffed gasoline, the walls started spinning and I started seeing colors," he said.

Auditory hallucinations are another of the effects of huffing. Chuck said he was haunted by the theme song of Nintendo's Super Mario after huffing and suffered from headaches.

Middle-school students are the most common abusers of inhalants because, unlike marijuana, alcohol or even cigarettes, the products can easily be obtained at home or cheaply bought at any store.

Darrell Sievers is a DARE officer with the Jackson Police Department. "Ninety-five percent of the students have no idea where to get pot," he said of his sixth-graders. "I'd say half could get their hands on alcohol, but all of them know where to find inhalants."

An estimated 1.1 million American children 12 to 17 years old have abused inhalants nationwide in the past year, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. By the time children reach the eighth grade, one in five will have "huffed," the organization estimates.

It's called huffing because the chemical vapors are inhaled through the mouth or nose.

Law enforcement officers are reluctant to talk about the kinds of chemicals that can produce these effects because they don't want to give potential users a shopping list. Many teens don't take huffing seriously, they say.

"Teens do not see use of inhalants as risky. They're easy to get and they're not illegal. They think if it's legal, it's OK," said Shirley Armstead, drug enforcement agent for the St. Louis division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Spray paint and hairspray are legal products, but Sievers says they can be considered illegal if used with the wrong intentions.

Can be misdemeanor

According to Missouri law, a person using an item illegally, such as purposefully inhaling solvents, can be charged with a class B misdemeanor. That person could be fined up to $500 or sentenced from one to six months in county jail.

One big whiff of the vapor chemicals through the mouth or nose is enough to cause irregular heart rhythm leading to cardiac arrest within minutes, also known as sudden sniffing death.

Because users often inhale the chemicals from plastic bags and rags, death can also occur by suffocation.

The dizzying effects -- similar to alcohol intoxication -- followed by hallucinations and impaired judgment also can result in serious injuries from collisions on foot or behind the wheel.

"It takes only a few parts per million for inhalants to be dangerous. They're very potent," said Armstead.

The huffing cases Armstead has encountered include a person who died from spraying deodorant directly into the nose and a 20-year-old woman now in a nursing home with irreparable brain damage after seven years of sniffing glue.

Had no suspicions

Chuck, now 17, huffed for eight months, quitting after his younger brother walked in on him. But he suffered from migraine headaches for six months afterwards. The Jackson High School student is receiving treatment at the Family Counseling Center in Cape Girardeau.

He had inhaled gasoline and other chemicals at home and even in school numerous times without anyone knowing. His parents had no suspicions. Even when they walked in on him inhaling gasoline they did not understand what he was doing.

NIPC executive director Harvey Weiss said that is not unusual. Only a small percentage of parents are aware of the dangers of huffing and discuss them with their children. That means a large number of children get away with inhaling undetected or are not warned about it by the parents.

"The problem is that if parents do not think that their children are using, then they won't talk about it," Weiss said.

After being in and out of rehab three times, Chuck has been clean for six months. He has two more years of high school to complete.

If it weren't for his parents stepping in and encouraging him to go to rehab, Chuck said, he'd probably be dead or at least brain dead. But what he regrets most is disappointing his family.

"It's really devastating for me to know my whole family and people I care about know about it," Chuck said. "It just breaks your heart."


335-6611, extension 127

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