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Grieving Mother Issues a Plea Against a Lethal High : Chatsworth: The woman and friends of her dead son make a video on the dangers of the aerosol gas ‘craze.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kyle Sickinger was a clean-cut kid who liked to get high once in a while.

Big deal, the 16-year-old’s friends thought. No hard stuff. Some alcohol, maybe an occasional marijuana joint. And more recently, cans of pressurized lens dust cleaner that produce an instant but brief sensation of dreamy lightheadedness.

But earlier this month, Kyle and his friend, Jeffrey Vega, took a final hit from a can of the cleaner--popular with teen-agers who mistakenly believe it contains laughing gas--slipped off their inner tubes to the bottom of Kyle’s back-yard swimming pool in Chatsworth and drowned.

It might have been just another sad end to two young lives, but in the past month, Kyle’s mother, Sharon Nilson, has used her son’s death as a tool to educate others about the dangers of inhaling the potentially lethal aerosols that police, educators and teen-agers say are a new craze on school campuses around Los Angeles.

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“This is positive grieving,” said Nilson, her eyes red-rimmed from crying and sleepless nights. “If we close the door these kids have opened, it’s our mistake. This can’t just be a flash in the pan like so many other incidents.”

So she has turned her home into an informal youth center, where teen-agers come after school to play the piano, fiddle with her computer, listen to the radio or just sit quietly next to the pool where their friends died May 3.

The youths comfort Nilson--their laughter and chatter filling up the silence. But they also educate her--exposing her to the drug-use habits she never saw in her own son. And together, Nilson and the teen-agers are producing a videotape to warn others of the dangers of using what many think is a harmless chemical.

On the tape, which Nilson wants shown in schools, the teen-agers talk frankly about drug use, especially inhaling propellants like those that killed their friends. Their comments are intercut with scenes Nilson taped of Kyle’s funeral, planning even then to make such a video.

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“You know, we’re just saying the straight facts,” said Sam Merchant, a 16-year-old Canoga Park High School sophomore who appears on the tape. “There’s no acting.”

Sam and others on the tape said they hope their honest, straightforward approach will be successful at steering young people away from cleaner-sniffing.

“This is the new craze,” said Sgt. Mike Moran of the Los Angeles Police Department’s DARE, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program.

Jamie Birawer, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stoney Point High School in Chatsworth, listed the reasons: “It’s not illegal. It’s easy to get. You can do it anywhere.”

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And it’s cheap. Cans of the cleaner cost only a few dollars apiece, but students at local schools often get discounts at the photo supply stores where they are sold, an ages-old device to encourage young people to take up photography as a hobby. Sam said a friend bought 15 cans of the cleaner before a party about four months ago.

When his friend flashed his student identification card, Sam said, the clerk took 15% off his bill.

Photo store owners said they are aware of the abuses by some teen-agers, but said they are in no position to regulate sale of the cleaners. “There’s nothing illegal about it,” said the manager of the Chatsworth store where Kyle and Jeffrey bought their can.

Likewise, school administrators said it is difficult to control use on campus because it is not always clear that a student with a can of cleaner is not using it for its intended purpose--cleaning dust from camera lenses, electronic gear and other sensitive devices. Whereas possession of a can of beer or a marijuana joint is a clear violation of school rules, having dust remover is not.

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“In the past, no one thought much of it,” Chatsworth High School Principal Donna Smith said. “We have a couple of hundred computers. Kids have cameras. We are now alerted and more aware.”

Nilson said she thinks teen-agers, parents and teachers should be even more aware of the dangers associated with the gas. “This stuff is deadly and it can happen to anyone,” she said.

Teen-agers who inhale the cleaners call them “nitrous,” mistakenly believing the cans contain nitrous oxide, a gas frequently used in dental procedures as an anesthetic. The effect it produces is similar to nitrous--a light-headed feeling caused by the restriction of oxygen to the brain.

But the cleaners are not nitrous oxide. There are several different types. The can used by Kyle and Jeffrey contained chlorodifluoromethane, a propellant that can be lethal if inhaled. A warning to that effect is printed in bold letters on the side of most cans.

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“They think it’s cool and sometimes they take too much and they never wake up,” said Lt. Bud Harper, officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s juvenile narcotics unit. “They are playing Russian roulette with chemical bullets.”

Short of death, the chemical propellants in the cleaners can cause a person to lose muscular control or inflict permanent brain and organ damage. “There are a lot of cases where these young people simply become vegetables,” said Evelyn McFeaters, associate director of the Washington-based Chemical Specialties Manufacturing Assn. “Some of them just can’t return to normal life.”

The association’s members manufacture the chemicals used in the cleaners, but not the finished retail product sold in stores. She said that although she had heard of users suffering brain damage, she had no case studies or statistics. Use by teen-agers is believed to be most popular in Southern California, she said.

It is difficult to determine whether young people die from inhaling the cleaners, in part because the gases dissipate quickly in the bloodstream, leaving only scant traces, said manufacturers and medical investigators. In addition, people often die for reasons caused only indirectly by the gas.

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In the case of Kyle and Jeffrey, for instance, the official cause of death was drowning.

The boys apparently were floating on inner tubes in the pool, inhaling squirts of gas from the can. They passed out within seconds of each other, slipping limply through their flotation rings to the bottom of the pool, and momentarily ceased breathing, the coroner’s office said.

When they began to breathe again, they sucked in water instead of air.

“They had no chance of surviving,” coroner’s Investigator Claude Boucher said.

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When news spread among Kyle and Jeffrey’s friends that they had died, many denied that the gas had anything to do with their deaths or they thought the two were foolish for using it in the water.

Boucher, however, said it is uncertain whether Kyle and Jeffrey would have survived had they been out of the water--a point that made the teen-agers at Nilson’s house stop and think.

“I thought they just drowned,” Jamie said. “A lot of my friends do it and nothing happens. I didn’t believe it was the drug that killed them. But it was.”


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