Inhalant Abuse

February 1, 2006 By    

It was a Sunday afternoon at the end of summer. Within days, 14-year-old Michael McCarty would be starting the ninth grade at a nearby private school.

 Four days after 14-year-old Michael McCarty ingested fumes from an aerosol can, his parents had to make the awful choice to discontinue life support systems and let their bright, beautiful son die.
Four days after 14-year-old Michael McCarty ingested fumes from an aerosol can, his parents had to make the awful choice to discontinue life support systems and let their bright, beautiful son die.

Michael, his 11-year-old sister Kimberly and his parents planned to see a movie together that day, Michael’s choice. He headed upstairs to shower, but when he seemed to be taking too long, his mother grew concerned.

Knocks on his bathroom door drew no answer. Once she unlocked the door, Laurie McCarty was shocked to find her precious first-born lifeless as he sat on the toilet seat, with the shower still running, his head of sandy brown curls slumped forward on his chest. A bag and a can of spray paint lay near his side.

Warning signs of inhalant abuse
Warning signs of inhalant abuse

Paramedics who raced to the scene were able to restore a pulse, but his brain was already dead. Four days later, on Aug. 25, his parents had to make the awful choice to discontinue life-support systems and let their once bright and curious son die.

“He absolutely looked so perfect, but the lack of oxygen to his brain left him with a brain that had no blood flow whatsoever,” Laurie McCarty said softly from her home in West Hills, Calif., in the San Fernando Valley. “It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.”

The Association for Consumer Education, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the American School Counselor Association have teamed up to enhance the awareness of inhalant abuse among children and parents nationwide.
The Association for Consumer Education, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the American School Counselor Association have teamed up to enhance the awareness of inhalant abuse among children and parents nationwide.

Growing problem

Michael was just one of what drug-abuse experts fear is a growing number of young teenagers trying to get a quick “high” on what many adults would never suspect – common household products, including air fresheners, hair spray, tire inflator, furniture polish and propane. When inhaled, or “huffed,” the products restrict oxygen to the brain, stimulating a dizzying effect similar to alcohol.

The oxygen deprivation can disrupt a heartbeat, causing a heart attack, even in first-time users. Those who abuse inhalants for longer terms can damage their brain, nervous system, liver and other organs.

How to talk with teens (ages 12 to 17)
How to talk with teens (ages 12 to 17)

More than 1,400 products – all of which can be easily, legally and inexpensively obtained – can be inhaled for this short-term intoxication. Propane, gasoline and fuel-based derivatives are among the top five most-abused products leading to death or serious illness, according to the Association for Consumer Education, a Washington, D.C.-based organization working to educate parents about the dangers of inhalant abuse.

Propane and butane were implicated in 11 percent of the 11,670 inhalant abuse-related deaths from 1996 through 2001, according to a 2004 study by the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Alliance for Consumer Education
Alliance for Consumer Education

While children and parents are well aware of the dangers of drug abuse, many children don’t equate huffing with “drugs” because the products are so readily available.

“Kids don’t think this will hurt them,” says Cindi Bookout, the ACE executive director.

And parents, trained to sniff out marijuana or beer, fail to question why the cooking spray might be in their child’s bedroom, or that the computer dusting spray cans are frequently empty.

Laurie McCarty, for example, found three cans of spray paint in her son’s room just two days before his accident. She says she was “super angry” when he explained he had used the paint cans to create torches by igniting the spraying paint during an end-of-summer campout with eight friends in their back yard, so she threw the cans in the garbage.

“Apparently he had gone into the trash and fished them out, because it was one of the same cans (he used in the accident),” she says. “If I had taken a closer look, I would have shook it and found all the air was extracted.”

Equally frightening is the young age at which children are experimenting with these seemingly innocuous products. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan for the National Institute of Drug Abuse found one in four students admitted abusing inhalants before eighth grade. About 54 percent of inhalant abusers are between ages 13 and 19, and 15 percent are between ages 6 and 12. Older teenagers often graduate to alcohol and illegal drug use.

A Texas study found 13 percent of sixth-graders had tried inhalants, says Colleen Creighton, ACE’s education programs manager. And the 2004 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, found 22 percent of sixth-to eighth-graders said they had tried inhalants – although only 4 percent of parents believed their children that age had.

Inhalant abuse cuts across social barriers, notes Chris Cathcart, ACE secretary and president of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, whose members helped to found ACE in 2000. Girls and boys, in suburban and rural areas, of all economic demographics, are equally prone to try inhalants, he says.

At the same time, the Michigan study found fewer eighth-grade students believe there to be “great risk” in using the drugs once or twice.

Educational effort

Bookout and others studying the issue say these numbers point to the need to increase educational efforts to help parents talk with their children about inhalant abuse. A 1995-2002 effort launched by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America led to a decline in usage, but as that group’s focus shifted to other drug concerns, inhalant abuse figures began creeping up.

“We’ve talked to parents who’ve lost their children who said, ‘I thought it was strange that I found the cooking spray in the bathroom, or the gas can was moved, or we were going through computer dusters,'” Bookout says. “It’s that knowledge base that we’re trying to establish so parents know (what to look for).”

Less than 50 percent of parents talk with their children about this issue, yet parents hold the best key, Bookout says: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America study shows parents who simply talk with their children about the issue reduces drug abuse by half.

In an attempt to educate parents, ACE has linked with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the American School Counselor Association to develop a school-based program it is trying to introduce nationally. The program has been distributed in 26 states, and ACE hopes to bring the program to every state by 2007.

Making the pitch

Because propane is one of the products abused, ACE officials are asking the Propane Education & Research Council for $934,715 over three years to help promote the dangers of inhalant abuse.

“We’re hoping those in the propane industry understand this is something on the side of angels that they can be part of,” Bookout says.

PERC officials are still considering ACE’s March 2005 presentation, and industry members plan to discuss it further during the Consumer Safety Education Action Plan meeting next month in Houston. Kate Caskin, PERC’s senior vice president and spokeswoman, says industry members want to be sure their product is used safely and responsibly in all circumstances.

“I think we remain very interested in not only learning more about the effort, but how it might fit into what we’re doing at PERC in terms of our overall consumer safety and education campaign,” Caskin explains. “We applaud their efforts. We have to look at the entire picture and determine where can we make a difference.”

It isn’t the first time industry members have considered the issue. As a member of the National Propane Gas Association’s board of directors in the 1990s, at the request of an aerosol product distributor, Rob Nicholson circulated information about inhalant abuse – including concerns about propane. Nearly 15 years later, he distributed ACE’s educational kits during NPGA’s winter board meeting in January 2005.

However, industry members never expressed much interest or wanted more information. Nicholson, the president and chief executive officer of Eastern Propane Corp. of Oak Ridge, N.J., is uncertain that the number of propane-related cases warrants a national investment beyond its already ambitious safety effort. He also pointed out that propane – at 44 degrees below zero – if inhaled will produce instant frostbite, although drug experts point to cases in which refrigerants have also been abused.

“I haven’t read about or heard of the frequency of this being a major issue, (but) I don’t want to thwart ACE’s efforts to educate the children,” says Nicholson, who represents New Jersey on the NPGA’s board of directors. “I just wanted to put it out there so everybody throughout the country can be aware that this activity has gone on. It’s really something to do on a local level with local teaching.”

A question of responsibility

Consumer product manufacturers and retailers emphasize there is nothing wrong with their products, but several representatives of those companies say they bear a social responsibility to make sure their products are used in the manner in which they are intended.

“If you’re silent on these matters you’re presumed to be guilty,” said Joseph M. Healy, chairman of the board for Outsourcing Services Group Inc., which manufactures aerosol products for companies like Mary Kay, Gillette and Procter & Gamble. He also is the ACE president.

“The public at large is suspicious of business in general. Your silence speaks volumes. It’s important to get out in front of these issues and be viewed as socially responsible as opposed to trying to hide from it,” Healy says.

“Nobody really wants to ban products. That’s silly. That’s inappropriate. But we in industry have a responsibility.”

Cathcart says propane retailers can help the cause by helping to educate the adults who buy their products.

“You have to be mindful of how to use it and store it, and know that it could be abused,” he says. “If you walk into a teenager’s room and find butane lighters scattered around the room, you’ve got to be concerned. Retailers can provide materials to help this information get passed on to the consumer.”

Anecdotal data

Part of the problem with getting funding to support their efforts is the dearth of data. Aside from the Michigan and Maryland studies, little research exists to properly catalog the injuries and deaths attributable to inhalant abuse, Bookout says. That is partly because – unlike the telltale beer bottles in the back seat of a car at an accident scene – parents and law enforcement might overlook signs of inhalant abuse. Who would question aerosol deodorant cans or hairspray tucked into a teen’s backpack?

The group has gathered several parents of children who have died trying inhalants, although none of those had abused propane, to their knowledge. However, anecdotes abound in a handful of newspaper stories that describe cases of propane huffing:

  • An unidentified girl died in 1994 in southern Maryland after huffing propane.
  • A 12-year-old boy in Huntington Beach, Calif., died in 2000 after sniffing a combination of butane, isobutene and propane.
  • A boy in St. Clair Shores, Mich., died in 1995 after the furnace pilot light ignited fumes from the propane he was sniffing.
  • Two 11-and 12-year-old boys in Cambridge Bay on Canada’s Victoria Island died in 1990 after the propane they were huffing exploded.
  • Six more people in Canada’s Northwest Territories were severely burned that year in two accidents involving propane sniffing and cigarettes.

ACE is hoping these stories will help propane retailers decide to help them educate parents, who can discuss the dangers with their children at the appropriate time. Companies can help pay for information packets to be distributed to schools in their area, or contribute to the wider cause.

To ease her grief, Laurie McCarty says she has begun approaching kids in her area to warn them about what happened to her son. As best she can determine, Michael had only huffed inhalants two or three times before his accident, and she wants other kids to know how dangerous it is.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a gas or Dust-Off or spray paint, they’re all the same. It doesn’t matter what the product is, the result is the same….and it’s usually death,” she says.

“I can’t bring my son back, but my goal is to save as many kids as I can. I had a beautiful son, who was an A-B student who, for some reason, thought that was a legal way to have a quick ‘high,’ and it turned on him in two seconds and took something from me that is more precious that life itself,” she says. “My whole family is devastated.”

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