- Associated Press - Saturday, March 29, 2014

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) - Volunteers who cleaned up the roadside and woods along Mill Mountain Parkway hauled away some unusual pieces of trash, including a shopping cart, a gas tank, a boom box and a set of 8-pound dumbbells.

They also picked up 625 empty canisters of whipped topping, most likely tossed after people had used them to get high in a method called “huffing.” The most likely culprits, according to drug prevention specialists, were teenagers.

Huffing is a form of inhaling intoxicants either by nose or mouth. A user inhales the compressed nitrous oxide from a whipped topping canister for a quick high. The gases can also cause death.

Judging by the number of empty canisters found along Mill Mountain Parkway, about a mile from where it intersects with the Blue Ridge Parkway, people are huffing in vehicles, then tossing the canisters out the window, prevention specialists say.

The volunteers who picked up hundreds of empty cans March 22 were part of Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a nonprofit organization that provides support for projects near the parkway. They were not surprised to find cans strewn by the spur road that connects to the parkway or in the woods near the popular Chestnut Ridge Loop Trail. People who live near the area had reported hauling away whipped topping cans by the pickup-truck load in the past year.

“It’s become a relatively new phenomenon” to find the cans close to the road, said Heidi Ketler, chairwoman of the Roanoke Valley’s chapter of Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. “I suspect it’s not uncommon to find cans all over the parkway, based on what other (Friends) chapters are saying.”

Ketler said that most of the cans were found close to the road, but others were uncovered in the woods, where people apparently huffed in small groups, based on the number of beer cans, bottles and other litter in the area. The road and its adjacent woods and trails are secluded and lightly traveled in winter, making it an easy place for users to go undetected.

Inhaling noxious fumes has long been an easy, cheap way for young people to get high. The products that contain such chemicals are often perfectly legal to obtain and include items such as airplane glue, fingernail polish and cans of whipped topping.

Although purchasing such products is legal, inhaling them to get high is not. According to Virginia law, using inhalants “with the intent to become intoxicated, inebriated, excited, stupefied or to dull the brain or nervous system” is a Class 1 misdemeanor. Offering inhalants to another person for the same illicit reasons is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic inhalant abuse can damage the brain, liver and kidneys. Inhalants can cause suffocation and death.

Data show that the most common practitioners of huffing are younger teens, according to local drug prevention specialists.

“Usually, younger kids use whatever they can get their hands on,” said Susan Rieves-Austin, a manager for Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare who specializes in substance abuse prevention programs for teenagers.

Use of inhalants among teens in the region has fallen somewhat in recent years. According to Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in 2013, 12.3 percent of middle school students in Roanoke, Salem and the counties of Botetourt and Craig said that they have used intoxicating inhalants in their lifetimes. In a similar survey 2009, that number was 13.5 percent. Among high school students, 12.9 percent in 2013 said they had ever used inhalants, compared with 13.3 percent in 2009.

The percentage of high schoolers who said they had sniffed inhalants within the past 30 days climbed from 6.7 percent in 2009 to 8.2 percent in 2013, according to the survey.

“It is a big problem,” said Sarah Jane Lawrence, teen outreach program manager for the Prevention Council of the Roanoke Valley. She said that teenagers often don’t know whether their friends are huffing because the products can be bought without suspicion and used in secret.

“It’s just not well-known which kids are doing it,” she said.

Lawrence had known that huffing was occurring along Mill Mountain Parkway because she had seen the canisters herself during training runs up Mill Mountain. Lawrence is training for the half-marathon portion of the Foot Levelers Blue Ridge Marathon on April 26, part of which will be run along the Mill Mountain Parkway to the Blue Ridge Parkway. She had even considered leading a team of teenage volunteers to clean up the area before the race.

Beyond their illegal use, the empty canisters also constitute a portion of a sizable litter problem near the parkway. Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway hauled away 640 pounds of trash, 500 pounds of large items such as tires and electronic equipment, and 320 pounds of recyclable plastic bottles and aluminum cans during their March 22 work day. A group of 24 volunteers worked nearly four hours picking up trash along the marathon route.

Volunteers will lead another cleanup along Mill Mountain Parkway on April 5, which is Clean Valley Day.

“The marathon is supposed to showcase the region,” said Ketler, who organized the cleanup. “Imagine what people would think if they saw all those empty whipped cream cans along the way.”

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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