Home Product 'Drug' Problem

Under Kitchen Sink

When parents think of illegal drugs, they typically fear drug pushers selling cocaine, heroin, and other psychoactive substances. But some dangerous chemicals that have been killing more and more youngsters every year are legal, inexpensive, and widely available in stores and households.

Kids call it "huffing" (inhaling through the mouth) or "sniffing" (inhaling through the nose). The "drugs" being abused are common products like air freshener, hair spray, freon, glue, shoe polish, lighter fluid, cleaners, correction fluid, spray paint, felt-tip markers, propane for barbeque grills, nail-polish remover, cooking sprays, fire extinguishers, and the gas used in whipped -cream cans. In 1996, 800,000 youngsters tried inhalants for the first time.

A recent study confirmed that almost as many eighth- graders used inhalants as used marijuana. Inhalants are the fourth most common form of substance abuse among high school students - after alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana.

Ninety percent of parents polled in 1997 refused to believe that their children had used inhalants. However, 1 in 5 students abuse inhalants sometime before graduating from high school. The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse found that the number of new inhalant users doubled in five years. Children as young as the second grade have been abusing inhalants and solvents.

As in Russian roulette, kids can die from inhaling commercial products the first time they try them or the tenth. More than a thousand items on the market can be abused as inhalants with harmful results.

Youngsters are inhaling these substances in order to feel "high," mistakenly thinking the products are safe because they are legal. But a child who breathes these poisonous substances may become ill or die.

Signs of inhalant abuse can include unusual odor on the breath, dazed appearance, a chemical smell or stains on clothing, red or runny eyes or nose, spots or sores around the mouth or nose, loss of appetite, hearing or short-term memory loss, spasms, disorientation, and intoxication. In recognition of the alarming rise in inhalant abuse, Oct. 15 was named National Inhalant Abuse Awareness Day.

Beginning in August, the first consumer products company - SC Johnson - began to place a warning related to children and teens as well as the toll-free number of the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information on its labels (1-800-729-6686). The company has teamed up with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to bring this problem to the attention of all Americans.

The inhalant drug threat to our children illustrates that education and prevention are central to our drug-control strategy.

Banning all products that could be abused is obviously impossible. Parents, teachers, coaches, and health professionals must focus on confronting our school children with the terrible physical danger of inhalant abuse.

* Barry R. McCaffrey is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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