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Huffing making a comeback

Kentucky officials are alarmed at the rising abuse rate of dangerous inhalants

LOUISVILLE - Jay Armstrong was 13 when he experienced his first high. He was watching a television interviewer ask people about the dangers of "huffing" or inhaling fumes.

At home in Covington, Armstrong decided to try it. He said he covered the top of his mother's deodorant with a sock, put it to his mouth, sprayed and "the whole entire world vanished."

"To me it didn't seem like a drug, just a way to feel better," said Armstrong, who moved on to whipped-cream dispensers and sealed vials of nitrous oxide called whippets.

That was more than a decade ago, when inhalant abuse was at its peak, and 23 percent of teenagers reported that they had tried it.

After a vigorous education campaign by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the number had dropped to 18 percent by 2001, said Paul Costiglio, with the partnership. But now, it is "slowly creeping back up," with one in five American children saying they have tried huffing, he said.

Between 2000 and 2005, more than 17,000 cases of inhalant abuse were reported to poison-control centers around the nation, said Henry Spiller, director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center of Kosair Children's Hospital. During the previous five years, the number was less than 12,000.

One issue, Costiglio said, is a growing misperception that the risks of huffing are low.

"You hear statements, 'It's just compressed air,'" said Tom Scheben, spokesman for the Boone County Sheriff's Office.

But Spiller likens huffing to playing Russian roulette -- it can cause a disturbance of heart rhythm known as "sudden sniffing death syndrome," as well as brain damage, suffocation or asphyxiation.

Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, said that while no one organization tracks huffing deaths, he estimates there are 100 to 125 cases nationally each year.

In Kentucky, Spiller said he usually sees a death every other year. Twice this summer, police in Kentucky and southern Indiana said drivers in serious accidents had been inhaling from compressed-air cans used to clean keyboards and other items.

In July, 10 people were hurt when a teenager accused of huffing drove his car through a crowd at the Madison Regatta in Indiana. The next month, a 20-year-old driver from Guilford, Ind., died and three others were injured in a car crash on Interstate 275 in Kentucky; police said the Indiana man had been huffing.

Kentucky is among seven states in the nation with inhalant-abuse rates that are twice the expected number, based on their population, Spiller said. One reason might be that so much of the state is rural -- inhalant abuse is especially prevalent in rural areas, experts say.

Many states, including Kentucky, have laws against inhaling fumes or toxic vapors to get high.

Yet state laws on huffing are ambiguous, Costiglio said, and make it difficult to bust people for intent to use when they possess a particular product.

Part of the issue, Weiss said, is that hundreds of products can be abused, and they're found everywhere -- in homes, schools and shops.

Parent Bruce Howard said that's also why the danger of huffing is a difficult lesson to impart. "Gasoline is not a drug; fingernail polish is not a drug," said Howard, whose son had counseling for inhalant abuse last year when he was 12. "It (probably) did not come across as quickly to his mind that it's just as bad as the rest of it."

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Tags : huffing solvents inhalants teenagers
Posted on: 2006-10-03 12:20:16