Cheap Thrill Can Become a Deadly High : Drugs: More and more kids are inhaling the vapors of everything from the butane in cigarette lighters to nail polish remover. The use of inhalants--the kids call it ‘huffing'--worries some drug-abuse experts.


These days, everyone knows the use of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine is rampant among youths. But sometimes it takes a teen-ager’s death to alert people to another kind of drug problem: the abuse of common household chemicals called inhalants.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., it took the death of Carla Hinkle, 16, who was buried in her “Lady Canes” softball uniform.

In Chicago, it took the death of Christian Whittaker, 16, who, according to his friends, didn’t use illegal drugs.

And in Mission Viejo last summer, it took the near-death of a popular football player to wake up the community.

These students were essentially “good kids” who would not think to abuse illegal drugs but who were persuaded to sniff butane, Freon and Scotchgard for a quick, cheap thrill.


And it is this use of inhalants, called “huffing” among kids, that has a growing number of drug abuse experts worried. Others, however, downplay the statistics on inhalants because they are low compared to other kinds of drug abuse.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual survey of teen-agers, released this month, one in every six eighth-graders (17.4%) has used some inhalant, and one in every 20 (4.7%) had used an inhalant in the previous 30 days. The prevalence is equal among males and females.

By high school, 20% of the youths said they had used inhalants at least once.

The national figures represent a small but significant increase from last year, particularly among younger students. According to experts, sniffing was popular in the ‘60s, but the trend faded until the mid-1980s, when an increase was again noted. More than 1,200 products contain chemicals that could be inhaled.

“Youngsters don’t fully understand the lethal potential of using such substances as butane, solvents, glues, nitrous oxide,” says social psychologist Lloyd D. Johnston of the University of Michigan, which conducts the annual study of almost 50,000 eighth- through 12th-grade students.

Because inhalants are cheap and easily available, they have become especially popular among younger teen-agers and even children. In a recent study in Ohio, 8% of fourth-grade students said they had used inhalants, says Doug Hall, vice president of the National Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) in Atlanta.

“They use such popular products as whipped cream (aerosol cans), typewriter correction fluid, airplane glue and solvents,” Hall says. “These are things found in hardware stores, drugstores, kitchen cabinets, garages and warehouses.”

Inhaling butane from cigarette lighters is one of the most common patterns of use. But youngsters will also sniff vapors from nail polish remover, gasoline, paint, aerosol dusting products, air fresheners, ammonia and turpentine. Youths will bleed some coolant from an air conditioner into a plastic bag and pass the bag around at a party or they might even enter a grocery store, siphon off aerosol from products on the shelves and take a hit before fleeing, experts say. The chemicals amyl and butyl nitrate are also popular inhalants, but are more likely to be abused by older youths or adults.

Inhaled chemicals depress the central nervous system and produce a quick high with mild euphoria and dizziness.

Because the substances are not illegal, some younger children may believe they are also not harmful or addictive, says Evelyne McFeaters, associate director of communications with the Chemical Specialties Manufacturing Assn.

“We would like to think there is a set profile of kids who would abuse this stuff. But we see the deaths of ‘A’ students and superior performers in the community. They think they can experiment once, and they die,” McFeaters says.

Education on inhalants must clarify for children that the substances can be fatal on the first use, experts say. Besides the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, inhalants can cause breathing difficulties, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and impaired reflexes. The chemicals can destroy lung tissue and cause pneumonia and kidney failure. Users can appear intoxicated, black out, and become panicky, aggressive or disoriented. They can become dependent on inhalants and suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stop.

The number of deaths from inhalants is unknown, although the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reported 76 deaths in 1991. The statistics are unreliable, however, because it is difficult to locate traces of inhaled substances in the body.

Yet not everybody considers the use of inhalants serious enough to warrant a new approach to substance-abuse prevention messages.

At the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, statistics show a consistent use of inhalants among youths since 1985, with a slight increase in 1991-92. In the most recent survey, 12.5% of seventh-graders said they had used inhalants at least once in the previous six months.

But one official said the California department puts little significance on statistical findings of “around 10% or less” because the rates of abuse of other drugs are so much higher. Alcohol, for example, is much more widely abused by younger students, says Johanna Goldberg, coordinator of the Los Angeles Board of Education Drug Abuse Programs.

Alcohol abuse is seen in every community, while Goldberg contends that inhalants appear more popular--almost faddish--only in some regions and among particular age groups.

“Occasionally, there are drugs in one neighborhood and not in another. I think that’s what we’re seeing in the (national) survey,” Goldberg says. “We focus our educational efforts on the known ‘gateway drugs’ of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana.” Gateway drugs are those that tend to be used first and lead youths on to other substances.

Goldberg says inhalants are not covered in her office’s substance abuse curriculum.

“I don’t think we’d want to write it into the curriculum at this point, because next year it might be something else that’s popular,” she says.

McFeaters shudders at these remarks. Since the popularity of glue sniffing in the 1960s, the Chemical Specialties Manufacturing Assn. has tried to educate adults and children on the dangers of abusing inhalants. The association represents manufacturers of many products that are abused by youths.

“I think the main problem is authorities are very preoccupied with alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine, and inhalants have not been taken seriously enough,” McFeaters says. “But I think we will begin to see a more serious regard for this.”

Instead of being ignored, inhalants should be considered one of the tougher challenges for educators, says PRIDE’s Hall. The use of inhalants is a piece of “the culture of children” that adults fail to understand, he says.

“It certainly has been underemphasized,” he says. “We have a concern that the nation has had a war on crack, not a war on drugs. That is not to deny that crack is a serious drug problem. But when you see 8% of fourth-graders expose themselves to what could be a fatal episode, that is a serious drug problem. The problem is that ‘officialdom’ isn’t aware of this.”

In the Ohio survey, when 89,000 students were asked if a particular substance is harmful to their health, only 43% said they thought sniffing glue and gas was harmful.

“Inhalants are also dangerous because you are using a more erratic and unpredictable type of drug,” Hall says. “There is no way to control how much of a toxic fume a child with his nose in a gas tank will draw into his lungs.”

PRIDE and organizations such as Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse, an Oregon-based group, have called for a more general approach to substance-abuse education that would include inhalants.

“We pick out a few drugs to vilify and act as if all the others were safe,” says Sandee Burbank of Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse. “We really need to take a much broader approach.”

Better education would be more effective, advocates say, than one of the recent efforts to reduce abuse of inhalants: outlawing the sale of certain products to minors. A Texas law forbids the sale of commonly abused paints and glues to minors, while in Minnesota, the sale of some paint products to minors also is prohibited.

“That is just a Band-Aid solution,” McFeaters says. “Children will go from one product to another. They will even go to grocery stores and sniff it directly from the shelves.”

Notes Hall: “One of our caveats is that legislatures tend to think that simply passing a law will do it. That alone won’t solve the problem.”