Death by Huffing

Inhalants can cause death. 

 BERND VOGEL/CORBIS

Teens are getting high on household products called inhalants. They’re cheap, legal … and deadly. Your first whiff could be your last.

Ashley Upchurch was a top student with a pack of friends. She was never in trouble with her parents or teachers. As a result, no one suspected that Ashley and her friends were regularly getting high and had been doing so since they turned 11.

“We got good grades, people looked up to us, we were ­popular kids,” Ashley, now 17, tells Choices, “and when we went behind closed doors, we were huffing air duster.”

Many families worry about kids using alcohol or marijuana. But few are alarmed by a common air duster. How can something that seems so innocuous be so deadly? An air duster is an inhalant. Ashley was one of 2.6 million teen­agers who get high by sniffing the fumes from inhalants—common products like lighter fluid and nail-­polish remover.

Several times a week, Ashley and her friends would inhale—or huff—the condensed air meant for cleaning computer keyboards. The inhalant gave her a quick, intense, short-lived rush. “It felt like you totally lost control of your body,” Ashley says. “And then, poof, it was over.”

They Had No Idea”

Most kids at school knew Ashley and her friends were huffing, but teachers and parents never had a clue. Unlike with other drugs, there were no telltale signs of abuse—no empty beer bottles, no cigarette butts, and no scent of marijuana smoke to give them away. “They had no idea,” Ashley says. “We did it everywhere—in cars, our bedrooms. We did it walking home from school.”

Ashley is one of the lucky ones. She quit huffing two years ago when she realized “these highs nearly destroyed my life.” Each year, more than 100 teens die from inhalant abuse, some on their very first huff. In North Carolina, 17-year-old Amber Suri Talley was huffing Freon from an air conditioner when her heart suddenly stopped. She died with the garbage bag she used to capture the fumes still covering her face. In 2006, 14-year-old Michael Carty’s mother found him slumped lifeless in his bathroom, a can of spray paint by his side. And in 2005, 17-year-old Johnson Bryant inhaled two cans of butane while sitting in a parking lot. Less than 15 minutes later, he drove his car into a tree.

“People don’t know just how common inhalant abuse is among young people,” says Jennifer Caudle, director of family medicine at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. “Inhalants are easy to get because they’re cheap and legal to buy.”

Inhalants can be found pretty much everywhere: under the kitchen sink, in a closet, in a garage. The truth is that inhalants are far more accessible than illegal drugs. “It was extremely easy to get the stuff I inhaled because you could buy it in a store, you could steal it, or you could even steal it from your parents’ computer room,” Ashley says.

Scary Statistics

One in five kids in the United States has used an inhalant to get high by the time he or she reaches eighth grade, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition (NIPC). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that 7 percent of 12-year-olds in the U.S. have sniffed inhalants. And 12-year-old kids are more likely to get high from purposely breathing in gasoline, lighter fluid, air fresheners, hair spray, and other inhalants than they are to use cigarettes or marijuana.

“You’re not supposed to breathe them in,” says Harvey Weiss, executive director of the NIPC. “If you do, you’re breathing in poisons. Kids don’t know the unintended consequences of these products.”

Sniffing inhalants cuts the oxygen supply to your brain and lungs. The toxic fumes dissolve the protective covering around your brain cells. As this coating deteriorates, messages travel ever more slowly through your brain. That can cause muscle spasms, tremors, and permanent damage to your speech and memory. Inhalant abuse can also lead to problems with your heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. Longtime users risk suffering permanent brain damage.

Younger teens are at a higher risk of danger because the tissue and mucus membranes in younger noses and throats are still growing. As a result, when kids inhale the toxins, they are more likely than older teens to be adversely affected. “Brain and memory are most affected,” Caudle says. “You have young people developing dementia, having hallucinations, walking into things, not to mention feeling agitated and anxious.”

Behind the Wheel

About half of all inhalant-related deaths are caused by accidents, like car crashes involving drivers who are high on inhalants. Most frightening is a fatal condition called sudden sniffing death syndrome. A person’s very first sniff can speed up his or her heart so drastically that he or she suffers a heart attack and dies. “There’s no way to predict it,” says Christopher Cathcart of the Consumer Specialty Products Association, which represents companies that make household products. “Even if one kid is using something and getting a buzz, his friend can use the same product and die from the first sniff.”

Her days of huffing behind her, Ashley warns anyone she can about the dangers of abusing inhalants. “You’re not going to look glamorous when your parents find you dead in your room because you were huffing,” she says.

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