- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fewer teens are getting high by inhaling common household products, but with 3,400 products available for dangerous “huffing,” prevention efforts are still sorely needed, according to a new study released this week.

“The numbers are shocking,” said Colleen Creighton, executive director of the Alliance of Consumer Education, a nonprofit group that fights inhalant abuse. “People will say it doesn’t happen in my community, it isn’t an issue. But it is.”

The new study, which appeared in the latest issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, examined the National Poison Data System (NPDS) from 1993 to 2008. It found 35,453 cases in which a person was treated for intentional inhalant poisoning. In 208 cases, the person died.

While the number of annual cases declined over time by 33 percent, the study by Melinda R. Marsolek, Nicole C. White and Dr. Toby L. Litovitz showed inhalant abuse remains a serious problem, especially among young teens.

Of the 22,311 cases where the outcome was known, most were resolved in emergency rooms. However, about 10 percent of patients ended up in intensive care and another 8 percent were referred to psychiatric units.

The NPDS also found that some 3,400 different products were now being abused, or 2,000 more products than were reported in previous estimates.

Propellants — especially aerosol sprays used to clean computer keyboards or other dust-collecting furniture — were the most commonly abused products. Gasoline and paint were also frequently misused. Products with the highest fatality rates included butane, propane and air fresheners.

The reason people inhale noxious chemicals is because it can cause brief euphoria and “fun” sensations, anti-inhalant-abuse advocates say.

A public service ad by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America shows several teens laughing as they spin and stumble around in a grassy area at night. But one boy falls to the ground, and even though a girl shakes him and cries his name repeatedly, his face shows that he has already died.

Parents should warn their children that they die from inhalant abuse, the ad counsels. “Even the first time.”

The Pediatrics study recommended more public education about inhalant abuse, product reformulations or product repackaging to discourage abuse, as well as prohibitions on the sale of certain products to minors.

But Ms. Creighton said that none of the preventive tactics are foolproof or as effective as educating young people on the dangers of abuse. She referred to one boy, for instance, who said he drank a sports drink whenever he “huffed” to wash away the harsh ingredients added to the aerosol, she said. Some kids are not deterred by “difficult” packaging, and, as for limiting access to abuse-prone products, “Where do you draw the line?” she asked.

For the Zuber family in Mitchellville, Md., the product that turned deadly was a standard commercial can of air freshener.

In February 2002, Justin Zuber, 16, was found in his bathroom with air freshener and a bag over his head.

His mother, Janna Zuber, regrets allowing her children to inhale helium from balloons when they were younger. It sent a “permissive message,” she wrote in a 2008 Washington Post column about her son.

Earlier this month, the federal government said it found evidence that a small but significant portion of teens who had pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma or sinusitis also used inhalants improperly.

“No one should engage in huffing. The consequences can be deadly,” said Pamela S. Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Dr. Robert Balster, director of the Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the magazine Business Week that many parents underestimate the dangers of the practice.

“The notion some parents have that experimentation with inhalants is a harmless phase that many youth go through is clearly wrong,” Dr. Balster said. “Inhalants are very dangerous, and need to be treated that way.”