It has been called the silent epidemic.
Every month, nearly half a million US teens in search of a cheap high try a whiff of everything from air-freshener to Reddi-Whip. The problem certainly isn't new. People have been sniffing inhalants since glue was invented. But a fatal car accident in Philadelphia and statistics showing a sharp increase in inhalant abuse among teens are causing renewed concern about "huffing."
In the past 10 days, the phone mailbox at the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition has received more than 1,000 calls, and the Austin-based group's Web site has gotten three times that many hits from the media and from parents who want to learn more about inhalant abuse, which is also called "huffing" and "sniffing."
All this has come in the wake of a car accident in a Philadelphia suburb in which five high school girls were killed. Coroner's reports showed that four of the five, including the driver, had ingested "significant" amounts of a computer keyboard cleaner.
Increase in abuse
Inhalant abuse ranks fourth in all substance abuse among young people between 12 and 17, behind alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. The number of new inhalant abusers has increased from 382,000 in 1991 to 805,000 in 1997, according to H. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment in Rockville, Md. There have been 260 reported huffing deaths since July 1996.
"There are so many kids doing this," says Harvey Weiss, director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. "While many parents may know, they don't think it would be their child, so they're silent until there's a tragedy in the community."
In fact, 9 out of 10 parents don't believe their children have ever abused inhalants, a 1997 National Household Survey on Drugs found. In fact, 1 in 5 teens will try huffing before they graduate. And even among parents who talk about drugs with their children, less than half discuss inhalant abuse.
Many parents are also unaware of huffing's dangers. In addition to being potentially fatal, it also is associated with long-term health effects such as brain damage. What this means, Dr. Clark says, is that "children get themselves in trouble before people realize there's a problem."
Cheap, easy to get substances such as alcohol and marijuana are illegal and can be expensive and difficult to obtain. Whereas inhalants can be picked up at the local grocery or hardware store.
"We've got a large number of kids using a wide spectrum of inhalants. Some almost defy the imagination," Clark says.
More than 1,000 common household products have the potential to be abused, including glues, hair spray, air-fresheners, lighter fluid, and paint products, says Ken Giles of the Consumer Products Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md. Not only are these items readily available, they're generally much less expensive than other addictive substances.
Some states have tried to curb the problem through legislation. Thirty-four states have laws in place to restrict the sale of inhalants to people under 18 or make it illegal to inhale solvents to get high. But they can be difficult to enforce.
"If legislation worked," Weiss says, "there wouldn't be a problem."
Advocates say the solution doesn't lie in banning substances or "criminalizing their use. The issue is to make parents and kids aware of this problem," says Clark.
SC Johnson in Racine, Wisc., has teamed with other manufacturers and government agencies in an outreach program, which includes a public service announcement, a brochure, and a video.
Putting warning labels on air-freshener
In addition, the company's Glade aerosol products now have a warning message that states, in part: "To avoid product abuse, keep out of reach of children and teens."
"These are the first consumer products to ever carry the number for the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information," says Cynthia Georgeson, director of corporate affairs. Despite efforts, Ms. Georgeson says the battle to educate parents is "uphill."
It was her own lack of knowledge about inhalant abuse that still haunts Elaine Franklin, of Scottsboro, Ala. Her 13-year-old son, Anthony, died in July 1997, after huffing air- freshener.
"I knew he had done this once before, but he said he would never try it again," she says. "He promised me; he swore up and down. If I had ever even heard of sniffing death, I would have been extremely concerned, but I didn't know. "