Freon Sniffing: South County’s Hazardous Fad
Groggy from a shot of morphine, Warren winced as he struggled to recall how a teen-agers’ party turned into a Freon-sniffing affair that almost cost him his life.
Warren, a 16-year-old South County high school football player, and about 19 other teen-agers had gathered at the home of a friend whose parents were away for the weekend.
After drinking beers in the house, a friend suggested that they sniff Freon, Warren recalled. The teen-agers bled some of the cold gas from the house’s air-conditioning unit into a plastic bag. The bag was passed from friend to friend, each one taking a whiff.
When the bag reached Warren, he went along with the crowd and took a deep snort. Moments later he slumped to the ground, falling over a planter wall. Unconscious.
“I felt lightheaded,” recalled Warren, who asked that his real name not be used. “But (moments) after, I fell. I was knocked out for about 15 minutes. I didn’t know where I was.”
Authorities say sniffing Freon is a growing fad among teen-agers in South County. In fact, 30 of the 120 teen-age outpatients at the county’s drug treatment clinic in Mission Viejo are receiving treatment for sniffing the gas.
Freon is a trade name for any of a series of gases used as refrigerants, solvents and propellants in aerosol products.
“A lot of parents and faculty members are flabbergasted when they learn about the number of things these kids have discovered that they can sniff,” said Alan Hix, a community liaison officer with the Capistrano Valley Unified School District. “A lot of kids are in danger, while adults are in the dark.”
Such was the case with Warren’s parents. Although they knew their son drank alcohol occasionally, they had no idea that he was sniffing Freon. Warren insisted that he has sniffed on just the one occasion, adding that “it was a wrong thing.”
It’s little wonder he feels that way. The teen-ager returned home after he regained consciousness and developed severe stomach pains. He later had his mother take him to Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center after the pain grew intense.
“He was squirming in pain,” said his mother, who also asked that her name not be used. “I was thinking that if I could have felt some of the pain for him, I would have, . . . but he wouldn’t tell me what caused it.”
Doctors at the Mission Viejo hospital later discovered that the fall had split Warren’s pancreas, infecting his spleen. They rushed to operate.
“It almost cost (Warren) his life,” said Dr. Stephen DeSantis, who treated Warren when he arrived at the hospital. “If we had waited any longer, it could have been fatal. You can lie to your parents or your friends, but never to your doctor.”
DeSantis and other trauma doctors said Warren and his friends were lucky that there were not more lethal injuries.
Ingested Freon causes brief euphoria, but it also decreases oxygen in the brain and can lead to lung damage and heart failure, said Dr. Philip Edelman, director of the Poison Control Center at UCI Medical Center in Orange.
Edelman said teen-agers across the nation have suffered heart attacks and died moments after sniffing the gas. Although he could not provide statistics, Edelman said Freon sniffing among teen-agers is on the rise in the county.
Coroner’s officials could not say how many Freon deaths have occurred in the county. But a check on records showed that Richard Carney, 16, a Fountain Valley High School student, died at a friend’s home in 1987 shortly after inhaling the aerosol refrigerant.
Leonard Liberio, program manager of the county’s Drug Abuse Services, which operates five drug treatment clinics, said data shows a surge in the use of Freon among South County teen-agers. Thirty teen-agers being treated at the Mission Viejo clinic have admitted to sniffing the gas two or three times a week, he said.
“We’ve heard that it’s pretty popular at parties,” Liberio said. “It’s really a phenomenon in South County, because we’ve only had a couple of cases at our Santa Ana clinic. Maybe the kids there are more into experimentation.”
A study released by Hix’s Drug Abuse Services two months ago supports his suspicion that South County teen-agers are more likely to use experimental drugs.
Hix said local hospitals and children themselves are reporting increased use of LSD in South County, adding that school officials have on several occasions caught students with stamps laced with LSD. Sometimes they have a cartoon of Mickey Mouse on them.
“We thought that the kids in (Grades 5 to 7) were the ones who were sniffing aerosols,” said Hix, who often lectures to parent-teacher associations about prospects that children might be sniffing inhalants. “But the teen-agers seem to be into it too.”
Hix said alcohol and marijuana are still the drugs of choice for teen-agers, but the use of inhalants is on the rise.
“We have a little bit of a problem with laughing gas,” Hix said. “We always urge parents to keep in touch with their kids and closely observe any real changes in behavior, . . . because if (their kids) are giggling behind the bedroom door, sometimes it could be more than just a joke. Kids are learning how to use a lot of legal substances in an illegal manner.”
Julie Sparacio, a counselor at Capistrano Valley High School, said she has learned that some students drain Freon from air-conditioning units at home and in cars. Others simply buy cans of the gas, which is sold over the counter in hardware and auto stores.
Sparacio said the incident involving Warren has rocked the Mission Viejo campus, adding that counselors and teachers are “trying to get the word out” that sniffing the gas could be deadly.
“Some students are reacting to it, while others are denying the seriousness” of the problem, she said.
Last week, Dr. Thomas Shaver, head of the trauma unit at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center, asked Warren’s friends and their parents to attend an informal meeting in the hospital’s conference room.
About 60 people showed up. Shaver said he hopes that the incident will teach parents and children a lesson about substance abuse.
He chided the teen-agers for not telling Warren’s parents about the youth’s injury and warned them about the consequences of sniffing Freon.
“We cannot afford to make poor choices,” Shaver said. “Sniffing that stuff is like putting a gun to their heads and pulling the trigger.”
Hix said fads such as sniffing Freon “run for a limited period of time. Kids get hurt, get smart and stop. Years later, another generation comes along and makes the same mistake.”