Aerosol computer duster. Spray paint. Glue. Freon from the air conditioner or the refrigerator. Nail polish remover. They’re common products in a home or workplace, but, when abused, are dangerous and sometimes deadly.
BY MEGAN DOYLE
“These are really scary in that they’re easy to obtain,” said Dr. Karen Simone, the director of the Northern New England Poison Center.
An annual study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that between 5 and 10 percent of high schoolers have tried inhalants at least once. In 2014, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 546,000 people 12 years or older — 0.2 percent of the population — were using inhalants to get high. About 149,000 of those people were adolescents, but the rest were over 18.
Don Burke works as the director of outpatient services at Day One, an agency that provides substance abuse treatment to youths. Education could be the most effective deterrent against inhalant abuse, he said.
“A lot of education as to how significantly dangerous and unpredictable it is,” Burke said. “We’re trying to get them to buy into the fact that this isn’t the best thing in the world for you to be doing. In fact, it’s a terrible thing to be doing.”
Most inhalants act as depressants, causing an intoxication like alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The symptoms of inhalant abuse can be similar to drunkenness — slurred speech, euphoria and dizziness.
Those effects, however, are usually short-lived. This makes inhalant abuse more difficult to detect than alcohol abuse.
Huffing can cause nausea and headaches, but it can also have serious long-term effects. The practice can damage the brain by cutting off oxygen flow. Damage to the liver, kidneys and other organs is also possible.
Inhalants can also cause death. In 2015 and 2016, Maine officials have recorded a combined eight fatalities related to huffing.
For Michele Breault of South Portland, the cause of her death last year was listed on an autopsy report as “acute 1,1 difluoroethane intoxication,” or a fatal level of the primary chemical in many aerosol products. The toxic compound causes an irregular heartbeat and, eventually, a heart attack. Known as a “sudden sniffing death,” it does not result only from repeated use.
“The thing is that it can happen the 10th time you’re using it, but it can also happen the first time,” said Dr. Anthony Campbell, a medical officer at SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
Inhalants, like other drugs, also can contribute indirectly to an accident or fatality.
For example, a New Sharon man was inhaling fumes from an aerosol can in his parked car earlier this year when a cigarette set off the flames. He died from the burns. Five months later, Biddeford police say a man huffed a stolen computer duster in a Wal-Mart parking lot before he drove his car into the building.
Because of these side effects, teenagers who experiment with inhalants often abandon them and move on to other substances. Others become addicted.
Dr. Mark Publicker, a Portland-based physician who specializes in addiction treatment, said adults who develop a dependence on inhalants are often abusing other substances and need intense counseling. He recalled a man who was addicted to inhaling Freon from his refrigerator and ultimately died from related frostbite.
“In situations of real loss of control, ideally there would be residential treatment,” Publicker said.
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