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House of Death

Your home is full of products your kids can inhale to get high -- and die

SATURDAY, July 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- In hindsight, the sock was a clue.

Laurie Bowden knows that now.

But 11 years ago, when she found the rolled-up sock while cleaning her basement one day, Bowden didn't realize it might have been a sign that her teen-age son was "huffing" -- getting high by inhaling household chemicals.

Kids who are huffing often use a sock or some other piece of cloth. They saturate the cloth with the chemical, then inhale the fumes through their mouth or nose.

A week after Bowden found the sock, her 16-year-old son was dead. David Bowden's heart stopped beating after he and some friends inhaled a fabric protector behind a Kmart in suburban Chicago.

Laurie Bowden had done all the right things. She'd talked to her children about sex, about drugs.

"I went on about every drug there was," Bowden says. "I had books on it -- I was that kind of parent. But I didn't know the first thing about inhalants."

Now, Bowden wants other parents to learn what she learned too late.

Twenty percent of all American kids between the ages of 12 and 17 have tried getting high from inhalants at least once, according to a survey by the government's Office of National Drug Control Policy.

A million children are expected to try inhalants for the first time this year, almost triple the number from 10 years ago. Almost half a million young people will use inhalants in a given month.

And, like David Bowden, many are kids of parents who tried to warn them about the dangers of drugs.

"These are good parents," says Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. "They've talked to their children about other things, but they never thought their child would do inhalants. So they didn't talk about it."

The average house contains dozens of items that can be used for huffing.

There are adhesives, like glue and rubber cement. Also, aerosols, like spray paint, hairspray, air freshener and fabric protector.

There is nail polish remover, paint thinner, lighter fluid and gasoline. There are spot removers and degreasers. There is cooking spray and whipped cream.

Kids can even huff the refrigerant in your air conditioner.

Warning signs for parents

The general warning signs of inhalant abuse include failing grades in school; chronic absences; and extremes of behavior, such as apathy, excitability or irritability.

More specific signs include:

  • Paint or stains on the body or clothing,
  • Spots or sores around the mouth,
  • Red or runny eyes or nose,
  • A dazed or dizzy appearance,
  • Nausea and loss of appetite.

With these dangerous chemicals, there's no such thing as safe experimentation, experts say.

"The very first time you try this might be the last," says Earl Siegel, a toxicologist and co-director of the Drug and Poison Information Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Siegel says he has seen about three deaths a year from inhalant abuse during the last decade. His experience led him into pioneering research on what is being called Sudden Sniffing Death.

"You have people getting high. One minute they feel real good, and two minutes later they're dead," Siegel says. "Even if there is a paramedic squad right next to them, they usually don't make it [alive] to the hospital."

Death in these cases comes from lack of oxygen coupled with an irregular heartbeat and an adrenalin rush, which adds stress to the already overworked cardiopulmonary system.

Other side effects of inhalant abuse may not be fatal, but they can be severely damaging.

"A lot of the drugs and chemicals used are solvents," Siegel says. "Solvents get absorbed to all parts of your body. There are solvents that can directly attack your eyes, your kidneys, your liver, your blood."

Or your brain.

"We run across kids pretty regularly whose brains are fried from inhalant use," says Phillippe Cunningham, a clinical child psychologist in Charleston, S.C. "When you do see it, it's pretty bad. When you see a kid who has been abusing inhalants, they are impaired neurologically."

Cunningham, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Medical University of South Carolina, says the No. 1 predictor of adolescent drug abuse is association with deviant peers.

If your kid is hanging out with drug users, that's the surest way for him -- or her -- to become one, too, Cunningham says. So parents can't be passive.

"If parents aren't aware of what kids are doing and don't provide consequences, kids are going to do what kids do -- which is stretch the limits," he says.

The best way to talk to your child is to be straightforward.

"Kids report that one of the things that keeps them from using drugs is worrying about what their parents would think of them if they used," Cunningham says.

"Just sit the child down and say, 'Look, I just want you to know where I stand. I don't want you using drugs. I don't want you using things we have around the house, sniffing them to get high. And I don't want you associating with people who do.' "

What To Do

You can get more information on inhalant abuse from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

And medical facts on the effects of inhalants are available from the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.

SOURCES: Interviews with Harvey Weiss, executive director, National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, Austin, Texas; Earl Siegel, co-director, Drug and Poison Information Center, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center; Phillippe Cunningham, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C.; Laurie Bowden, parent, Joliet, Ill.
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