Marian Benjamin

He is a 12-year-old boy with a history of problems in school—his grades are poor and he skips class frequently—and he’s even had a couple of run-ins with the justice system for petty thefts. His mother, who is raising her children by herself while her husband serves a prison sentence, says the boy is “very rebellious,” and she has no control over him. The boy was pronounced dead when his mother found him unresponsive and rushed him to the emergency department.

Postmortem toxicology tests revealed the presence of difluoroethane, found in Dust-Off,1 an aerosol cleaner for computer keyboards and a pretty common product in households with computers. Common, but not harmless. The boy had been “huffing” the Dust-Off without realizing that inhalation of high concentrations of the vapor was harmful and could cause heart irregularities, unconsciousness, or death. True to the product warning, inhalation caused death without warning.

The boy was not alone. More 12-year-olds have used what could be lethal inhalants than have used marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens combined, reported2 SAMHSA administrator Pamela S. Hyde in a press conference to kick off National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week, which began March 15.

These products are legal, easy to get, and found in just about everyone’s home; according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, parents just don’t know these cheap, accessible inhalants are as popular among middle school students as is marijuana. Even fewer know the deadly effects the poisons in these products have on the brain and body when they are inhaled or “huffed.” If not death, inhalants can cause physical, cognitive, and emotional developmental delays; probably more so than other drugs of abuse, because they are used during preteen years.

Also speaking during the press conference, Timothy P. Condon, PhD, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, cited the agency’s recent Monitoring the Future survey that showed more eighth graders than older teens use inhalants and have a lower perception of their risk. Environmentally accessible household or commercial products, especially those containing toluene, have been used most frequently. But the number of abused compounds, such as paint products, glues, and gasoline, has expanded.

Emergency department personnel can expect to see inhalant cases like the boy’s more frequently, because they are the drug use problem most likely to inflict serious damage, even with only occasional or short-term involvement. Inhalant use is also the most resistant to drug use prevention. From 1980 to 1990, it was the only drug abuse problem that demonstrated an overall increase in prevalence. It is also difficult to diagnose early, because parents, physicians, educators, and law enforcement personnel have limited knowledge of the problem and do not know what to look for.

Education is key to increasing awareness of this problem, and the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition can answer your questions, including those about what inhalants are out there and the characteristics of users, and also answer some questions that may be asked of health care professionals.

Although National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week is over, the campaign to educate about inhalant abuse can be conducted anywhere and anytime—and you can take part.

Marian Benjamin
[email protected]