BOSTON — HE was a 15-year-old Indiana boy caught up in an activity with lethal consequences. Others at school were sniffing inhalants to get high by using various means, some soaking cloth with lighter fluid and inhaling the vapors, others sniffing from small plastic bags filled with fabric protector fluid.
In some parts of the United States it's known as ``huffing.'' In other places it's called ``sniffing.''
According to the International Institute of Inhalants Abuse (IIIA) in Englewood, Colo., this misuse of readily available household products by youngsters and teenagers is increasing in the US, about 1 percent a year over the last 10 years. And in Latin American cities, hundreds of thousands of street children are known to use inhalants to get high.
The Indiana boy used contact cement in a gym bag, inhaling from inside the bag. Within minutes, he was dead, a tragic statistic.
``The sad irony is that many of the kids actually seek out the products with the harmful labels,'' says Fred Beauvais, a senior research scientist at Colorado State University, who has done drug surveys for federal research projects. ``But if a kid is using inhalants heavily,'' he says, ``typically he has a multitude of personal problems at home, in school, and inhaling is only one of them.''
In a recent study for the National Institute for Drug Abuse done by the University of Michigan, 20 percent of children had tried inhalants at least once by the time they reach the eighth grade. Another federal report found that 17 percent of high school seniors use inhalants, second only to the use of alcohol, which is 70 percent among teenagers.
``In the last three years,'' says Neil Rosenberg, president and medical director of the IIIA, ``we know of about 180 deaths in 40 states.'' Some deaths, involving inhalants, are listed as auto accidents or suicides, so fatalities from inhalants could be higher.
According to the University of Michigan study of 40,000 eighth, 10th, and 12th graders, use of marijuana, LSD, and amphetamines has increased during the last two years as well.
`It's not uncommon to hear a kid say, `Oh, I don't do drugs. I sniff every week, but I don't do drugs,' '' says Mr. Beauvais. ``It's only rarely that you'll find inhalants addressed in a drug prevention program.''
``I don't think anybody knows for sure why inhalant use is going up,'' Dr. Rosenberg says. ``There is some validity to the fact that because we are a society that encourages stimulants, children and teenagers are clearly following examples. There are about 1,400 products that are potentially abusable as inhalants.''
These products include paints and lacquers, butane, propane, correction fluid, hair spray, marking pens, nail polish, glues and adhesives, air-brush propellants, cooking spray, video-head cleaners, and halon in fire extinguishers. Inhaling the vapors from these products has the potential to severely damage vital organs and lead to death.
Researchers say that using inhalants now cuts across the economic strata in the US, but that 10 years ago it was known primarily as a problem on Indian reservations and among poor Hispanics in the Southwest. The American Indian Institute in Oklahoma will hold a national conference on inhalants in June in Phoenix. In Arizona, researchers report incidents of whole families huffing inhalants, but such incidents appear to be rare.
Organizing prevention and educational efforts present difficulties, say experts, who want to avoid inadvertently creating more interest in inhalants.
``You can go into [a prevention program] with the best intentions,'' Beauvais says, ``and show young kids all these products and say, `Don't use them.'''
``But the highest usage occurs at an age when kids are vulnerable to bad behavior. Instead of [heeding the warnings], many will try the inhalant,'' he adds.
Beauvais and others contend that starting at lower grades, the warning to children should not emphasize drug abuse, but a program that begins with the caution that ``strong smells should be avoided.''
``With the little guys,'' says Beauvais, ``we want to avoid suggestions of drugs and say it is poison avoidance when it comes to inhalants. And then when we get to the seventh and eighth grade, we have laid a strong foundation to build an anti-drug message.''
Some manufacturers of products that are being abused are changing the chemical composition of the products. The 3M company in St. Paul, Minn., reformulated the ingredients of Scotchguard in September 1991. ``We have had no reports of abuse since then,'' says Mary Auvin, a spokeswoman for 3M. ``There is still some heptane in the product, but it is more water-based now and has an unattractive smell.''
Other companies blatantly exploit the abuse. Adult bookstores in parts of New Jersey were selling inhalants with specific names like ``Rush.'' When the products were banned, the companies repackaged the product as video-head cleaner.
In Morris County in New Jersey, where 16-year old Justin Lange lost his life last September after inhaling nitrous oxide, his mother, Julie, helped form a teenage group called Just Cause.
``We've had five inhalant deaths over the past two years in our county,'' says Mike Rogers, a detective in the Morris County prosecutor's office. ``Lots of Justin's friends are now involved in the group. They go out and do things, because they say kids need adventure and have nothing to do.''