Huffing: A deadly 'cheap high'
After years of decline,
inhalant abuse on rise
Courier-Journal (Kentucky), September 28,
credits Barbara Walters for his first high.
He was 13 and
watching Walters on television interview people
about the dangers of "huffing," or inhaling
fumes. At home in Covington, Ky., Armstrong
decided to try it. He said he covered the top of
his mother's deodorant with a sock, put it to
his mouth, sprayed, and "the whole entire world
"To me it didn't
seem like a drug, just a way to feel better,"
said Armstrong, who moved on to whipped-cream
dispensers and sealed vials of nitrous oxide
called whippets, which can be found at grocery,
convenience and hardware stores, as well as
That was more
than a decade ago, when inhalant abuse was at
its peak, and 23 percent of teenagers were
reporting they had tried it. After a vigorous
education campaign by the Partnership for a
Drug-Free America, the number had dropped to
18percent by 2001, said Paul Costiglio, with the
But now, it is
"slowly creeping back up," with one in five
American children saying they have tried
huffing, he said.
Between 2000 and
2005, more than 17,000 cases of inhalant abuse
were reported to poison control centers around
the nation, said Henry Spiller, director of the
Kentucky Regional Poison Center of Kosair
Children's Hospital. During the previous five
years, the number was under 12,000.
Costiglio said, is a growing misperception that
the risks of huffing are low.
statements, 'It's just compressed air,'" said
Tom Scheben, spokesman for the Boone County
(Ky.) Sheriff's Office.
likens huffing to playing Russian roulette — it
can cause a disturbance of heart rhythm known as
"sudden sniffing death syndrome," as well as
brain damage, suffocation or asphyxiation.
executive director of the National Inhalant
Prevention Coalition, said that, while no one
organization tracks huffing deaths, he estimates
there are 100 to 125 cases nationally each year.
In Kentucky, Spiller said he usually sees a
death every other year.
summer, police in Kentucky and Southern Indiana
said drivers in serious accidents had been
inhaling from compressed-air cans used to clean
keyboards and other items.
In July, 10
people were hurt when a teenager accused of
huffing drove his car through a crowd at the
Madison Regatta in Indiana.
The next month, a
20-year-old driver from Guilford, Ind., died and
three others were injured in a car crash on
Interstate 275 in Kentucky; police said the
Indiana man had been huffing.
Kentucky is among
seven states in the nation with inhalant abuse
rates that are twice the expected number, based
on their population, said Spiller.
One reason may be
that so much of the state is rural — inhalant
abuse is especially prevalent in rural areas,
Police haven't noticed a spike in abuse in the
city, said Officer Dwight Mitchell, a police
But other areas
of the state have reported more of a problem,
two of which, Clay and Monroe counties, in
southeastern and south-central Kentucky
respectively, were awarded part of a federal
drug prevention grant by the state based on
their lack of resources and a willingness to
tackle the problem.
Carolyn Wilson, a
substance abuse counselor for Clay County Public
Schools, said she has seen almost a half-dozen
inhalant abuse cases in the past year.
"They'll say it
was 'just for fun, I was bored or I liked the
feeling of it,'" Wilson said.
Chris Craus , who
grew up in rural Franklin, Ky., said he started
huffing gasoline when he was 12, because "it was
something new," easy to get, and an easy habit
A year later, his
parents found him and his little brother passed
out in their tree house, reeking of gasoline. "I
didn't even know I blacked out," said Craus, now
including Kentucky and Indiana, have laws
against inhaling fumes or toxic vapors to get
the 18-year-old who drove his car through a
crowd of spectators at the Madison Regatta, has
been charged with inhaling toxic vapors, along
with criminal recklessness and operating a
vehicle while under the influence of a
Yet state laws on
huffing are ambiguous, Costiglio said, and make
it difficult to bust people for intent to use,
when they possess a particular product.
Part of the
issue, Weiss said, is that hundreds of products
can be abused, and they're found everywhere — in
homes, schools and shops.
Howard said that's also why the danger of
huffing is a difficult lesson to impart.
"Gasoline is not
a drug; fingernail polish is not a drug," said
Howard, whose son had counseling for inhalant
abuse last year when he was 12. "It (probably)
did not come across as quickly to his mind that
it's just as bad as the rest of it."
have shown that inhalant abuse peaks in
adolescence and then tends to taper off, Weiss
said many experts consider inhalants a gateway
to other drugs.
example, said he moved to alcohol and other
drugs after huffing; Craus said he moved to
marijuana and other drugs. "Whatever I see my
buddies doing I would try that out," Craus said.
Today he is in
the recovery program at The Healing Place, where
Armstrong, now 26, is a peer mentor.
Mitchell Ford, a
former user who now works with chemical
dependency patients at Ten Broeck Hospital,
agreed that kids who abuse inhalants move on to
"I honestly don't
know anyone that just huffs," said Ford, who is
31 and grew up in Owensboro. "Inhalant abuse and
drugs go hand in hand. It's all the exact same."
Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224.