Huffing: A new low point for kids getting high

By Meghan Bard
Sentinel & Enterprise

Hannah D'Alessandro, 13, of Leominster, said she learned about huffing, or inhalant abuse, in science class. But when she watched the movie "Thirteen," she saw something new.

The opening scene of the movie, which is about two troubled 13-year-olds, depicts the two girls sitting on a bed and spraying computer keyboard cleaner into their mouths to get a high, a practice commonly refereed to as "dusting."

"It was kind of disturbing," D'Alessandro said. "It was scary to watch."

Huffing isn't a new trend. If you visit inhalants.org, the Web site for the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), you'll find a staggering list of products that can be used to get high, from glue and hair spray to cooking spray, air freshener, deodorant and butane.

But recently, a new product has been added to that list.

"In the last two weeks parents have written me about the loses of their children because of computer keyboard cleaner," said Harvey Wiess, NIPC's director. "It's something that we're hearing more and more about. There have been a number of fatal episodes associated with it."

The practice of inhaling keyboard cleaner -- which is called "dusting," and gets its title from the most common brand name of computer keyboard cleaners, "Dust-Off" -- falls into the category of huffing, but it is unique in that there is no strong chemical odor associated with its use.

"Kids are really not sensitive to the dangers of these products because they think it's just air inside, when it's an aerosol," Weiss said. Weiss said the cans include freon, which is a refrigerant.

"You can have frost bite on your tongue, your lips, your throat (from dusting)," he said.

The reason dusting gives the user a high is because the gases replace the oxygen in the body, "which is why it causes light headedness and passing out," Weiss explained.

But inhalants can also cause death.

"(Huffing) can kill you," Weiss said. "That is called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. You can die the first time you use it, the fifth time or the 20th time."

Leominster residents Sam Martin, Marco DeNuzzio and Darielle Hackette, all 17, were shopping together at the Mall at Whitney Field on Wednesday. DeNuzzio was the only one who recognized the term "dusting."

"I heard (about dusting) on the show 'Cops,'" he said, also noting that he thought dusting was a stupid thing to do.

"'Let's place something toxic in our mouth, that's cool,'" Denuzzio quipped sarcastically.

Hackette, however, had seen the movie "Thirteen," and remembered being shocked by its opening scene.

"That was ridiculous. It was intense," she said. "They're 13 years old, are you kidding me?"

Martin was also disgusted by the thought of dusting.

"That's kind of gross, actually," she said. "It doesn't surprise me. People do crazy stuff."

Martin did express some familiarity with inhalant use.

"People do Whippets," she said, referring to the practice of spraying a can of whipped cream into your mouth while only releasing the gas, providing a high.

Inhalant use is not unusual among teens. According to the NIPC, 5 million teens, which is 21 percent of the teen population, have tried inhalants.

D'Alessandro said she thought people her age were more likely to use inhalants than older kids because of the substances' accessibility.

"It's easier to get," D'Alessandro said. "And you can use anything in an aerosol can."

D'Alessandro's older sister, Katelyn, 21, who was shopping with Hannah D'Alessandro at the Mall at Whitney Field appeared to be astonished by her sister's knowledge. She also agreed that as teens get older, they're more like to move on to other drugs because they can afford them.

"When you get to my age group, it's more of a higher breed of drugs," Katelyn D'Alessandro said.

Dust Off, though the most well-known, is not the only product on the market like it.

Its maker, Falcon Safety Products, posts a warning on each can, as well as on its Web site.

"As a leading manufacturer of one of the world's more versatile aerosol products, Falcon recognizes that among the issues surrounding aerosol product distribution and usage is that of inhalant abuse or 'huffing.' It is imperative that consumers of aerosol products, parents and children all understand the seriousness of this practice," the Web site states.

Some retail outlets are acknowledging the danger of products such as Dust Off and are taking steps to keep them away from kids.

Percy Eady, who is the manager of Staples on North Main Street in Leominster, said they do not sell the product to anyone under 18 years old.

"We do have an age requirement for our products that are air cleaners," Eady said. "There's a register prompt for the cashier to ask for age ID."

But while Staples mandates this practice, the Radio Shack at the Twin City Mall in Leominster does not, according to the store's manager, Mederick Harnoif.

"We don't have an age limit that people can buy it, no," Harnoif said.

Kylee Caruso, 18, of Gardner, wasn't surprised to hear about a new form of huffing, remembering what people used when she was in middle school.

"I remember people liked (to sniff) Whiteout," she said. "When you're younger, you kind of do stupid things."