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On the shelf at home, a means to get a high

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / September 9, 2012
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While alcohol, marijuana, and opiates are often the drugs that teens turn to in high school, some are choosing to inhale toxic household products they can easily obtain, such as computer air dusters, gasoline, butane, Freon, paint thinner, glues, whipped cream, and anything else in an aerosol can.

Known as “huffing,” the practice is often deadly. About one-third of people die after inhaling the chemicals for the first time, said Howard Wolfe, director of the New England Inhalant Abuse Prevention Coalition.

Wolfe said that some youths first use inhalants when they are between ages 11 and 12.

“It’s often the first or second drug on average that kids try, and they often try it before alcohol or cigarettes,” said Wolfe.

According to the Inhalant Abuse Prevention Program, about 2.6 million children ages 12 to 17 use an inhalant each year to get high. One in four students has abused a common household product by the time they reach the eighth grade.

When huffing, sprays are either put into a plastic bag and inhaled, or a rag or sock is soaked in the product and then the vapors are inhaled into the lungs. Sometimes, the vapors are inhaled right out of the container.

The effect that is produced cuts off oxygen from the brain, producing a high. The effect will last only for a few seconds or minutes, prompting repeated huffing to continue the buzz. Lack of oxygen and cardiac arrest are the leading causes of sudden death from huffing.

Huffing also can have dangerous consequences for those affected by the users. In June, Catherine Gaudette, 18, of Dracut, was sentenced to two years in prison after she lost control while driving in October 2011 and seriously injured three pedestrians in Lowell. Just before the accident, police said, she had lost consciousness behind the wheel after huffing a can of computer keyboard cleaner.

According to a 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of US teens said they had used inhalants in their lifetime; in Massachusetts, a state study last year reported that 5 percent of high school students had used inhalants in the prior 30 days.

Wolfe said huffing has significantly declined among Massachusetts teens in the last two decades, but is still a problem because the toxins are readily available in their homes and at stores, and are not illegal to sell or possess.

He said the most effective way to reduce inhalant use is to have everyone from parents and educators to doctors and mentors stress the toxicity of the products. Wolfe has shared a curriculum and video to schools, libraries, health educators, poison control workers, and also with teachers and parents.

“We’re teaching adults how to talk about it and what to look for. We’re teaching them to talk about product safety,” said Wolfe, who began working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health two decades ago to come up with a way to prevent kids from huffing. “If you talk to kids and say ‘Here’s something that can get you high, it’s free, it’s cheap, and don’t do it.’ Well, that doesn’t work very well.”

For more information, visit inhalantabusetraining.org.

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

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