The Cheapest High

spray can
SparkAction (at press time, Connect for Kids)
Carole Moore
January 27, 2012

Johnson Bryant was 17 when he died after inhaling butane.

Jacob Brogan used to huff gasoline to get high. His drug of choice was cheap, legal to purchase, and fast-acting. But like many of the more than 1,000 common products that can be inhaled for a quick, cheap high, gasoline can also kill those that abuse it.

Brogan, a high school senior in Jacksonville, N.C., had come to understand that he was taking a chance with his life every time he huffed. So he decided to quit. That decision itself proved dangerous.

On Nov. 16, 2003, Brogan refused to huff gasoline with two acquaintances. When he fell asleep in a chair, he was doused with gasoline and set on fire. With severe burns over 70 percent of his body, Brogan spent nine weeks in a drug-induced coma, endured 19 surgeries, and received 34 pints of blood and over 3 yards of grafted skin. Today, the teen's dreams of one day becoming a U.S Marine are forever dashed, but he stands firm on his decision to quit huffing.

"That stuff rots your brain even faster than cocaine," says Brogan. "If I had it all to do over, I'd still say no."

It's Under the Sink, It's in the Closet

Cocaine and marijuana and other illegal drugs are expensive. Pills such as OxyContin and other frequently abused prescription drugs are hard to come by. Stealing either drugs or the money to buy drugs often leads to getting caught. Alcohol has a distinct odor and a recognizable behavior pattern— one that many parents are familiar with from their own lives.

Glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline and lighter fluid are the most commonly abused inhalants among adolescents. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has a list of some of the products kids use to get high.

Inhalants, however, are drugs of a different color. Inhalants are breathed through the mouth or nose, sniffed, sprayed and huffed from rags, bags or balloons. They're found in average homes, from the bathroom cabinet to the office desktop. They are legally obtained, fast-acting, and cheap.

Inhalants fall into four main categories:

  • Volatile solvents, such as gasoline, glue, paint thinner, nail polish remover, correction fluid and felt-tipped markers.
  • Nitrates, often called "poppers" or "snappers," which are believed to enhance sexual activity.
  • Gases, often found in medical settings, such as nitrous oxide (laughing gas), as well as refrigerants, butane and propane.
  • Aerosols, like those used in spray paints, vegetable cooking oil spray, deodorant and hair spray.

Regardless of the inhalant or method, huffing can lead to severe brain, liver and kidney damage; organ failure; hearing loss—and death.

Crunching the Numbers

Both the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health show inhalant use rising at a statistically significant rate. Meanwhile, use of marijuana, the most widely used of illicit drugs, showed a small decline.

Some highlights from the NSDUH survey, covering 2010:

  • 9 percent of adolescents reported inhalants as their first drug--thats 0.8 million kids.
  • Kids who use inhalants are five times more likely to use other drugs than other kids.
  • Among persons aged 12 to 49 in 2010, the average age at first use was 16.3 years for inhalants.

Elementary school kids, some as young as fourth grade, also use inhalants. Harvey Weiss, Executive Director of the nonprofit National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC), says every child is at risk for inhalant abuse, but 11- and 12-year olds— sixth and seventh graders— seem to be the most vulnerable. Yet parents of young children appear loathe to suspect— or even discuss— inhalant use.

"They have to assume their kid might do this," Weiss says. "But usually their comments are more like 'my son or my daughter wouldn't do that.'"

The Price of Denial

Johnson Bryant's face peers out from beneath a mop of shiny dark hair. In his photograph, he looks the picture of health. A naturally gifted athlete, Bryant was the last kid anyone would have suspected to get hooked on huffing.

But Bryant's mother, Toy Johnson Slayton of St. Simon's Island, Ga., says all the signs were there. It's just that the adults in his life didn't know what to look for. "We saw erratic behavior, waves of belligerence clearly not in his make-up."

His parents talked with him about alcohol and drug abuse, but never discussed huffing. Then, when he was 16, Bryant told his parents he was going to the drugstore for a magazine. Instead, he purchased rubber gloves and two containers of butane. He huffed the butane in the parking lot, then drove away. Less than 12 minutes later, he hit a tree. Slayton says her son was dead before the accident.

"When the coroner walked in to me and said, 'I think he's been huffing,' I said, 'What's that?' It was a senseless, senseless death," she says.

Since the death of her son, she and other parents who've lost children to inhalant abuse have made it their mission to talk to kids, parents, educators and law enforcement about the dangers of inhalants.

Anti-huffing activist Diane Stem of Old Hickory, Tenn., says her son Ricky made many good decisions in his short life, and one bad one: to sniff Freon from their home air-conditioning unit. "My husband came home to find his best friend, our only son, dead in our own home," Stem says. "We were caught off-guard. Our concern is [that] if so many other people have not heard of huffing they are not warning their children of the dangers as well."

Several organizations offer information for parents and tips on talking about inhalant abuse with children and teens on their web sites, including NIPC, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Weiss says that the amount of education children receive on the dangers of inhalant abuse varies widely from school to school, but that in general, it's inadequate. One government-funded study found that while the percentage of teens who believe it is dangerous to smoke marijuana has gone up, the percentage of those who believe it is dangerous to use inhalants has gone down.

This Is Your Brain

It's a classic among anti-drug commercials. An image of a black frying pan fills the screen. A voice says, "This is your brain." A hand holds up an egg. The egg cracks and slides, sizzling, into the hot skillet. "This is your brain on drugs," the voice continues. "Any questions?"

The commercial is a pretty good description of the damage inhalants cause to the human brain. Dr. Dave McDowell, senior medical advisor, The Substance Treatment and Research Service, Columbia University, says inhalants have a particularly shattering effect on the still-growing brains of 12 and 13 year olds.

"You're going to get some neurotoxic effects on developing brains, that evidence is completely clear," McDowell says. The younger the child, the more severe the potential for damage and drug dependence. "The brains of kids are different from those of adolescents and adults," says McDowell.

Inhalants produce very brief, intense highs, a sign of how quickly they are absorbed and then processed by the brain and body. That can lead to repeated episodes of use in a single day. Prolonged use tends to produce dependence. Over the longer term, abusers show such signs as belligerent behavior, drowsiness, slow reflexes, muscle weakness and trouble concentrating.

Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome

For many adults, one of the scariest things to contemplate about inhalant abuse is that every episode could be fatal— the very first time a child sniffs or huffs could cause death.

An estimated 50 percent of inhalant-related deaths are caused by Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which occurs when the inhalant abuser is startled, causing the release of a burst of chemicals that trigger cardiac arrest. Kim Manlove, of Indianapolis, Ind., had never heard of the syndrome until June 9, 2001, when his youngest son, David, inhaled fumes from a can of compressed air used to clean computer keyboards while in a friend's pool. David's heart stopped and the 16-year-old reflexively tried to draw in a breath, but instead took water into his lungs.

A handsome, dark-haired boy with an easy smile, David was popular, but troubled. The Manloves had been through drug rehabilitation with him and were struggling to help their son, but had no idea he would try inhalants, nor did they know much about them.

"It was like playing Russian roulette," Manlove says. Since his son's death, Manlove has made it his mission to educate himself and others about inhalants and their effects. He and his wife have given more than 100 speeches on the subject, mostly to school-aged children. "It amazes me now how little people know about it," he says.

Could Your Child Be Huffing?

While no parent wants to think his or her child could abuse drugs, the possibility is always there. Here are some of the signs of inhalant abuse:

  • Paint stains on the fingers or mouth,
  • A chemical smell on the breath,
  • Vomiting,
  • Watery eyes,
  • Poor muscle control,
  • Confusion, and
  • Items such as shoe polish, spray cans and solvents disappearing or finding empty containers in the child's room.

Dr. Li-Tzy-Wu, a social scientist and researcher formally with the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina and now at the Duke Unversity School of Medicine, says research proves the earlier a child abuses inhalants, the more likely he is to become drug dependent. She also says inhalant use at a very young age often indicates social and psychiatric problems.

Inhalants are easy and legal to obtain and don't show up on common drug screening. The NPIC's Weiss says the key to prevention is to face reality.

"People don't talk about it because they don't think anyone's doing it," Weiss says. "But in the case of 12- and 13-year-olds, this is the drug they use."


*This article was originally published on SparkAction (then Connect for Kids) on April 25, 2005.  It was reviewed and updated in 2012.*

Carole Moore, a former police detective, is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

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