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Combating a deadly pastime for teens

Three cheers to The Times for its July 19 article, "Los Angeles youths’ nitrous oxide use has adults taking action." Inhalant abuse can and does kill. Too often, abusers underestimate the toxicity of inhalants; they think that computer duster is just "canned air," or that air freshener, spray paint and the myriad other household items in our homes and offices are safe to inhale because we (the parents) do not know to warn our children. Consequently, as The Times' article makes clear, inhaling nitrous oxide now outpaces marijuana use as the drug of choice for Los Angeles middle-school students.

Inhalant abuse knows no social, economic or age boundaries; visit the blog run by the Alliance for Consumer Education (inhalant.org) to see for yourself. Inhaling can kill the first time or the 100th. It is highly addictive, and users have a very high relapse rate. Prolonged use will cause permanent damage to the body, foremost being loss of cognitive skills.

My family has witnessed first-hand the horrors of inhalant abuse. Many years ago, I laughed with my five children as I let them "sip" helium from a balloon to make their voices high and squeaky. I missed a golden opportunity to talk with them about the dangers of inhalant abuse. I simply did not know then what I know now.

On Feb. 18, 2002, I experienced every parent's most dreaded nightmare: Our talented, bright and zany 16-year-old son Justin (who was an honor-roll student) was found dead in his room. A bag was over his head, and a can of air freshener sat nearby. Shortly after he died, a sixth-grader talking to his grandmother about Justin's death said, "He just did not know how to do it right." Recently, our college-aged daughter expressed her frustration with a few of her friends who did not know how her brother died. They confided to her their use of "whippits," claiming that no one dies from inhaling nitrous oxide. Perhaps they weren't aware that an MIT student died in 1999 after doing precisely that.

While I applaud California legislators' efforts to pass a bill that would prohibit selling nitrous oxide to anyone under 18, it is only a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. We desperately need a multifaceted approach to this deadly pastime. A massive education campaign needs to be launched to reach parents and children. If children are taught early on that these household items are poisonous and can kill, only then will we see a decline in the growing numbers of inhalant abusers and related deaths.

In today's Internet-connected world, no parent has the luxury of saying, "Not my child." I will never know if our Justin would have chosen not to use inhalants if I had the knowledge to forewarn him. It is my hope that every parent becomes aware and takes the time to talk with their children about the dangers of inhalant abuse -- a chance that Justin and thousands of others did not get.

Janna D. Zuber lives in Mitchellville, Md.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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