Huffing, Sniffing and VSA

Commentary By Judy Shepps Battle, 14th Oct. 2004

Rob Devine. This name is probably unfamiliar to you, unless you happened to read a South Jersey newspaper last Sept. 8; or if, perhaps, you are a parent or student at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, N.J.

If so, then you know that 17-year-old Rob died of cardiac arrest while trying to get high by inhaling fumes from a commercial air-freshener canister. This fatal response, known technically as “sudden sniffing-death syndrome,” is the very real risk one takes when “huffing” or abusing inhalants.

Does the name Andrew R. Sandy ring a bell? This Maryland middle-school student’s fume-of-choice was Freon, gathered from the heating and cooling system of his family home. He died at age 13; he’d reportedly been huffing Freon since age seven.

How about honor-roll and three-sport athlete Jessica Manley, age 14, from Decatur, Ind.? She reportedly wanted to be a writer or veterinarian when she grew up, but one incident of deliberately huffing bathroom air freshener ended those dreams. Jessica was among a growing number of girls using inhalants; since 1991, in fact, federal studies have shown that more girls than boys are huffing to get high.

Overall, the number of young people experimenting with inhalants continues to grow yearly. More than 2.6 million youths, aged 12 to 17, report having used inhalants at least once in their lifetime. That is just about one of every 10 kids in this age group.

The hard facts are that the abuse of inhalants by 8th-graders has risen 18 percent in the past two years, while increasing 44 percent among 6th-graders in the same time period. Sadly, the latest reports indicate that the number of children seeing such abuse as “risky behavior” is decreasing.

Simply put, more kids are likely to huff. And more young people are likely to die.

Huffing is a form of inhalant abuse in which fumes or vapors are inhaled through the mouth to get a quick high. Researchers have found significant huffing as early as fourth grade and deaths from this practice in kids as young as 10. For 12- and 13-year-old children, inhalants head the list of most commonly abused substances.

“Huffable” substances — typewriter correction fluid, paint solvent, air freshener, cooking sprays and deodorants — are legal, cheap, easily available, and difficult to detect when used. Some kids paint their fingernails with correction fluid instead of nail polish and then sniff. Others pour solvents on their shirtsleeves and discreetly huff.

Sound like a harmless activity? Not so. Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of solvents or aerosols can produce heart failure and death within moments. There is no way a user can gauge how much substance enters the body.

Any incident of huffing is a fatality waiting to happen.

The best parallel for this type of substance abuse is anesthesia. Huffing slows down body functions and provides a slight stimulation at low amounts, a loss of inhibition at higher amounts, and loss of consciousness as dosage continues to increase.

Initially, the user may experience nausea, fatigue, bad breath, coughing, nosebleeds, a loss of appetite, and shaky coordination. Heart and breathing rates may decrease and judgment may become impaired. Coma, brain damage, and cardiac arrhythmia also are potential dangers.

The credibility barrier regarding the danger of huffing must be hurdled. Parents are reluctant to see their otherwise goal-oriented and achieving children as potential chemical abusers, yet huffing is attractive to a wide variety of youth, regardless of their grade-point average.

Similarly, many kids believe in their own immortality, and do not associate inhaling the contents of a spray can with instant death.

Both these beliefs need to be challenged.

It is not enough to include inhalant abuse as a chapter in a drug-prevention or health-education class. We need to use the media — music, TV, movies, billboards — to present to the entire community the painful and potentially permanent affects of huffing common household substances.

Retailers must also be educated regarding underage purchase of these products. Sales of multiple cans of air fresheners and other huffable products need to be regarded with the same level of concern as many retailers now show for minors purchasing cigarettes.

As with the more commonly abused chemical substances, such as alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes, we need to talk with our kids — early and often — about the dangers of huffing.

It is time to devise and implement effective anti-inhalant abuse strategies on a community level so that Rob Devine, Andrew R. Sandy and Jessica Manley may remain among the last tragic deaths from huffing.

Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant, and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at Additional information on this topic is available from the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition website,

‘Huffing’ is an American term for what is known in the UK as VSA – Volatile Solvent Abuse. Young People who ‘sniff’ to get high use a variety of substances such as glue, Tippex, most kind of products that come in aerosol cans such as hair spray or oven cleaner. The epidemic of sniffing did not ‘go away’ in the early 90s – it just stopped being front page news. Parents need to remain vigilant and to ensure that their children understand the very real risks of potential fatalities from sniffing. NDPA


Source: PRWeb Jan 31st 2006

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