- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) - A newly developed fuel has almost wiped out gasoline-sniffing among Aborigines in Australia’s central desert and should be made mandatory at all gas stations in the region, a Senate committee reported Thursday.

Opal, a government-subsidized gasoline modified by BP Australia to remove most of the chemicals that create the euphoria that sniffers seek, has been introduced since 2006 into a growing number of Outback Aboriginal communities as a safer alternative to unleaded gas.

The central desert is mostly populated by Aborigines who face joblessness and live in violent and crime-ridden townships.

The fuel’s success has come to the attention of other countries where gas-sniffing also causes deaths and brain damage among indigenous communities.

A Senate committee examining the Opal strategy found Thursday that the once-rampant problem of gas sniffing in central Australia had become “sporadic.” Estimates vary of how many remain regular sniffers, the report said.

“The supply of Opal fuel has been a resounding success in helping to reduce petrol sniffing,” the report said.

Tristan Ray, a social worker for the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service who contributed to the report, estimated that the number of regular sniffers in the central desert had declined from 500 to 20.

The report recommends that the gas stations within the targeted area be forced by law to stock Opal if they do not do so voluntarily within six months.

But Rod McLean, manager of the Ti Tree Roadhouse gas station in the tiny central Australian desert town of Ti Tree, told The Associated Press that his customers did not want to use Opal, partly because it was less efficient than standard unleaded fuel and he claimed it ruined small engines.

BP Australia spokesman Chandran Vigneswaran said independent testing proved that Opal did not damage engines and was no less economic than standard fuel.

He said Canadian delegations had approached the company last year to inquire about the suitability of using Opal among indigenous communities in that country.

McLean also said the health benefits of Opal had been overstated, citing a 12-year-old boy who died in the Aboriginal desert community of Hermannsburg in 2007 after inhaling it. A coroner found the boy died from the fumes and warned against any promotion of Opal as harmless.

Opal sells for the same price as unleaded fuel because of a government subsidy of 69 cents a gallon (27 Australian cents a liter).

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