Getting Huffy: The Epidemic of Inhalant Abuse

1999, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Shockwaves rippled through the Philadelphia area last January when five teen-age girls were killed when their car crashed into a utility pole while returning from a shopping trip to buy prom dresses. More shock waves followed when the coroner reported finding the chemical difluoroethane in the bloodstreams of the driver and three of her four passengers. The idea that inhalant abuse played a role in the tragedy was denied by the families and friends of the quintet. But after further investigation, police found an empty can of “Duster II,” a spray used to clean computer keyboards, inside the wrecked car. Among the spray’s ingredients—difluoroethane. The medical examiner determined the cause of the crash was intoxication due to “inhalant abuse.”

Several years ago, CPYU’s Walt Mueller was speaking on a junior high retreat when the camp’s kitchen crew discovered an entire case of canned whipped cream was “faulty.” Every can was out of gas. Further investigation revealed that a group of boys had raided the kitchen and sucked the nitrous oxide propellant out of the cans in order to get high.

Known as “huffing,” “wanging” and “sniffing,” inhalant abuse is currently one of the most prevalent forms of substance abuse among the teen-age and child population. Cheap and easily accessible, inhalants are legal, everyday household products that are sniffed or inhaled by children for the purpose of achieving a quick and euphoric high. Children as young as six years old are choosing from thousands of common household products containing euphoriant inhalants. The most recent data indicates one in five eighth graders has used inhalants, making inhalants the most widely abused form of drugs among that age group. The reason for their popularity among the younger age groups is that many of these kids have difficulty obtaining alcohol and other illegal drugs. Use usually declines by 17 to 19 years of age but some users do continue into adulthood. Young white males have the highest usage rates.

The most popular of these “garbage drugs” are Scotchguard, non-stick cooking spray, gasoline, turpentine, nail-polish remover, butane, room deodorizers, brake fluid, glues, hair spray, aerosol propellants, spray paint, felt tip markers and computer cleaner. Kids will sniff them directly from the source, from a paper or plastic bag, or from rags saturated with the substance. The fumes are usually inhaled through the mouth with several deep breaths required to produce the desired sense of euphoria.

Many young users don’t realize inhalant use is dangerous. Immediate effects can include nausea, coughing, sneezing, nosebleeds, fatigue, impaired judgment, violent behavior, lack of coordination, loss of appetite, unconsciousness and even death. “Sudden sniffing death syndrome” has occurred due to the sudden and unexpected disturbance of the heart’s rhythm. Long-term effects include damage to many of the body’s organs. Permanent brain damage is often evidenced in personality change, memory impairment, hallucinations and learning disabilities. Inhalants can also seriously damage the heart, liver, kidneys and bone marrow.

While use is difficult to detect, you can discern signs of inhalant abuse by looking for teary, glazed or red eyes; facial rash; chemicals on the breath; erratic behavior; chemical or paint stains on clothing; slurred speech; general apathy; and a decrease in school performance.

Kids will often refer to inhalants as laughing gas, whippets, poppers, snappers, bullet, locker room, bolt, rush, climax, gunk, texas shoe shine and buzz bombs.

By the time Wade Heiss was 12, he was regularly sniffing air freshener alone in his room at his family’s Bakersfield, California, home. Two days before Christmas 1995, Wade’s older brother walked in and caught him in the act of huffing. In just a few short moments, the young boy fell to the floor dead from cardiac arrest. Wade’s father is a physician. In an interview with the Associated Press, Dr. Heiss offered these words: “Yeah, I heard about this huffing. But even I didn’t know the effects of it and I’m a medical doctor. Nobody’s telling parents about it. Why isn’t someone screaming and yelling about this?”

We agree. It’s time to wake up to what Dr. Heiss has labeled the “silent epidemic” of inhalant abuse.


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