By the HELP Committee
and Havre Public Schools
Hi-Line residents have all heard the public service announcements on the radio about "sniffing" and "huffing." But what is sniffing? What is huffing? And who should be worried?
Sniffing and huffing refer to purposely breathing chemical vapors to achieve a kind of high. The chemical vapors come from inhalants. And breathing these vapors produces psychoactive, or mind-altering, effects.
It's a relatively new kind of drug abuse, and a worrisome one.
That's because a variety of products commonly found in the home and in the workplace contain substances that can be inhaled. Many people do not think of these products as drugs because they were never meant to be used to achieve an intoxicating effect.
However, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that young people, predominantly those 12 to 25 years old, are using solvents, gases and nitrites to get a quick high by sniffing directly from an open container or by huffing from a rag that has been soaked in the substance and then held to the face.
Solvents used as inhalants include paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline, glues, correction fluid, felt-tip marker fluid and electronic contact cleaners.
Gases used as inhalants include butane lighters, propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), refrigerant gases, spray paint, hair or deodorant sprays, fabric protector sprays, and medical anesthetic gases such as ether, chloroform, halothane and nitrous oxide.
Nitrites used as inhalants are aliphatic nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, an ingredient found in room deodorizers; amyl nitrite, which is available only by prescription; and butyl nitrite, a substance previously used to manufacture perfumes and antifreeze that is now illegal.
What's the harm?
Although they differ in makeup, nearly all abused inhalants produce short-term effects similar to anesthetics, which act to slow down the body's functions. When inhaled via the nose or mouth into the lungs in sufficient concentrations, inhalants can cause intoxicating effects that last a few minutes up to several hours.
The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign explains that sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly induce heart failure and death within minutes of a session of prolonged use. This syndrome, known as "sudden sniffing death," can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person.
High concentrations of inhalants also can cause death from suffocation by displacing oxygen in the lungs and then in the central nervous system, so that breathing ceases.
Short of death, inhalant abuse causes short-term health problems including heart palpitations, breathing difficulty, dizziness and headaches. Long-term health effects include damage to the brain, nerve cells, heart and lungs.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists these additional irreversible effects caused by inhaling specific solvents: hearing loss, peripheral neuropathies or limb spasms, bone marrow damage, liver and kidney damage, and blood-oxygen depletion.
Young people are likely to abuse inhalants, in part, because these products are widely available, inexpensive, easy to conceal and legal. Many young people start because they don't think these substances can hurt them. Most users do not realize how dangerous inhalants can be. Once hooked, they find it a tough habit to break.
Who is at risk?
Inhalants are second only to marijuana in terms of adolescent drug use, and all kids are at risk, because youth drug use cuts across all geographic, socio-economic, racial and ethnic boundaries.
Initial use of inhalants often starts early. Nationwide, about one in five kids report having used inhalants by the eighth grade.
The NIDA conducts an annual survey of drug use among the nation's eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. According to this Monitoring the Future survey, inhalant use by eighth-graders increased significantly in 2003 following a long and substantial decline in inhalant use in all three grades.
Between 1995 and 2002, eighth-grade use fell from 12.8 percent to 7.7 percent, as more students came to see inhalant use as dangerous. However, eighth-graders' use rose to 8.7 percent in 2003.
This troubling statistic is echoed in another measurement from the Drug Abuse Warning Network: Emergency department mentions of inhalants increased 187 percent from 2001 to 2002, returning to the approximate level observed in 2000.
In the December 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14 percent of Havre High School students reported having used inhalants to get high, with 6 percent reporting continued use. These rates are higher than those reported by other Montana high schools. Nearly 6 percent of Havre Alternative School students have experimented with inhalants, but none reported being current users. Havre Middle School students reported the highest rates of inhalant use, which is consistent with national trends. Eighteen percent reported having ever used inhalants to get high, and 12 percent reported use within the 30 days prior to the survey. Again, these rates are higher than those reported by other Montana middle schools evaluated through the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
What can be done?
When using aerosols or volatile products for their legitimate purposes like painting or cleaning, do so in a well-ventilated room or outdoors.
Closely monitor all of the substances mentioned in this article so that children are not allowed to abuse them.
Be aware that the following signs may indicate an inhalant- abuse problem in a friend or loved one:
Unusual breath odor or chemical odor on clothing;
Spots or sores around the mouth;
Nausea or loss of appetite;
Slurred or disoriented speech;
Drunken, dazed or dizzy appearance;
Red or runny eyes or nose;
Inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability and depression;
Paint or other stains on face, hands or clothes;
Hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers and chemical-soaked rags or clothing;
Missing household items.
The HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line is committed to promoting a drug-free lifestyle for everyone in the community. For more information on this or related topics, call 265-6206.