When Aaron Wake, a 24-year-old graphic arts student, died after sniffing butane from a cigarette lighter last July, his mother was not just distraught over the news. She was confused.
A police detective told the mother, Laurie Culp, that her son had been "huffing" before he died, and she had no idea what that meant.
Culp isn't the only parent who has not heard of the dangerous practice of inhaling chemical substances to get high, which is becoming more popular among pre-teens and teenagers.
While some parents talk to their children about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, few seem to realize they should also be warning them about the dangers of sniffing household chemicals, such as air freshener, to try to get high. Often teens, and even young adults, don't understand that just one huffing experience can be deadly.
There were an estimated 1 million new inhalant users in 1999, up from 390,000 in 1990, according to the National Institutes of Health. The rate of 12- to 17-year-old users has risen significantly, from 10.9 per 1,000 potential users in 1990 to 29 per 1,000 in 1999.
More than one in five eighth-graders admit to "huffing" household chemicals, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. The coalition has recorded more than 700 inhalant deaths in the United States since 1996, and the group warns there have probably been others that went unreported.
Poisons in Your Home
Medical experts say that huffing can be fatal in numerous ways. The gases in the materials that are inhaled can significantly limit available oxygen in the air, causing the person to stop breathing. To intensify the effect of the inhalants, huffers often use plastic bags, which can lead to suffocation.
Inhaling chemicals can also lead to sudden sniffing death syndrome, when irregular heartbeat leads to cardiac arrest. Over the long term, huffing can also cause irreversible brain damage.
Common household inhalants that are used by huffers include permanent ink felt-tip markers, lighter fluid, adhesives, glues, spray paint, paint thinners, gasoline, typewriter correction fluid, a wide range of aerosols, fluorocarbons from air conditioners, and butane.
Here are some signs that the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition says that parents can look for:
Paints or stains on body or clothing
Spots or sores around the mouth
Red or runny eyes or nose
Chemical odor on the breath Drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance
Nausea, loss of appetite