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Huffing: A deadly 'cheap high'

After years of decline, inhalant abuse on rise

Courier-Journal (Kentucky), September 28, 2006

Jay Armstrong 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 vanished."

"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 "head shops."

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 partnership.

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.

Russian roulette

One issue, Costiglio said, is a growing misperception that the risks of huffing are low.

"You hear statements, 'It's just compressed air,'" said Tom Scheben, spokesman for the Boone County (Ky.) Sheriff's Office.

But Spiller 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.

Harvey Weiss, 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.

Twice this 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.

Cheap, accessible

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, experts say.

Louisville Metro Police haven't noticed a spike in abuse in the city, said Officer Dwight Mitchell, a police spokesman.

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 to hide.

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 24.

Many states, including Kentucky and Indiana, have laws against inhaling fumes or toxic vapors to get high.

Michael Bowen, 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 controlled substance.

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.

A difficult lesson

Part of the issue, Weiss said, is that hundreds of products can be abused, and they're found everywhere in homes, schools and shops.

Parent Bruce 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."

While studies 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.

Armstrong, for 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 other drugs.

"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."

Reporter Katya Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224.