P H I L A D E L P H I A , July 27, 2001 -- A chemical used to preserve the dead isbecoming an increasingly popular drug for users looking for a newand different high, one which often comes with violent andpsychotic side effects, officials say.
The chemical is embalming fluid, and users — mainly teens andtwentysomethings — are buying tobacco or marijuana cigarettes thathave been soaked in it, then dried. They cost about $20 apiece andare called by nearly a dozen names nationwide, including "wet,""fry" and "illy."
"Some people around here think it's just a city problem butit's not," said Julie Kirlin, a juvenile probation officer inReading, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. "Whether theylive in a million-dollar house or a $5,000 house, kids who aresmoking pot or crack and are looking for a different type of highare turning to wet." The high that users experience depends on what they're reallygetting. Many users who want embalming fluid often get it withphenylcyclidine (PCP) mixed in. Embalming fluid is a compound offormaldehyde, methanol, ethanol and other solvents. "We test for heroin, cocaine and marijuana but not for this,"Kirlin said. "Numbers-wise, I think we're missing a whole lot." Adding to the confusion is that PCP has gone by the street name"embalming fluid" since the 1970s. "What they're getting is often PCP, but the idea of embalmingfluid appeals to people's morbid curiosity about death," said Dr.Julie Holland of New York University School of Medicine, who hasstudied drugs including wet. "There's a certain gothic appeal toit."
Drug Can Produce Euphoria, But Also Coma and Seizures
Twenty Houston-area users interviewed for a 1998 study by theTexas Commission on Drug Abuse said effects include visual andauditory hallucinations, euphoria, a feeling of invincibility,increased pain tolerance, anger, forgetfulness and paranoia.Stranger symptoms reported include an overwhelming desire todisrobe, and a strong distaste for meat. "It's prevalent, it's cheap, it's easy to make and it'smarketed to children … it comes in little bags with cartooncharacters on them," said Edith Pestana, an epidemiologist for theConnecticut Department of Environmental Protection who took part inthe Texas study. "It has become quite popular with college kids,too." Other symptoms may include coma, seizures, renal failure andstroke. The high lasts from six hours to three days. "Fry users are described like those who do a lot of inhalants;they're just spaced out, disassociative," said Jane Maxwell of theNational Institute on Drug Abuse's Community Epidemiology WorkGroup, composed of researchers from major metropolitan areas. "When people say they've been using fry and they come into theemergency room and are just wild — they have to be strapped down intheir beds or they destroy the room — that tells me that PCP's inthere," Maxwell said.
Deadly Attack by 14-Year-Old on ‘Wet’
In the Philadelphia suburb of Morrisville, a 14-year-old boyfatally stabbed a 33-year-old neighbor more than 70 times in May2000, after smoking wet he purchased in Trenton, N.J. The boy, whosaid he took "wet" to quiet the voices in his head, is serving aseven-year sentence in a juvenile facility. In Connecticut, "illy" first appeared in 1995 and was cited asa factor in at least four deaths. It was believed by users to bemarijuana and mint leaves, but tests showed it contained thoseingredients plus embalming fluid and PCP, Pestana said. In Oklahoma, three young girls reported last year that they weresexually assaulted by male acquaintances after the group smoked"fry." Although there are no national statistics on usage, many drugexperts say anecdotal evidence suggests wet has spread from poor,minority inner-city areas to affluent, white suburban neighborhoodsand college campuses. "It seems to pop up in isolated incidents; we see it in[geographic] groupings," said Kate Malliarakis of the U.S. Officeof National Drug Control Policy. "Unfortunately it seems to spreadby word of mouth, especially with kids."
Reports of Thefts from Funeral Homes
The chemical poses an added problem for police because it islegal. Formaldehyde can be purchased in drug stores and beautysupply stores (it is an ingredient in nail care products). It'salso available in many school science labs. Hydrol Chemical Co. in Yeadon, an embalming fluid supplier tofuneral homes, has received one or two calls with questions from"parents who found a bottle of embalming fluid in the freezer orin their child's room," chief chemist Richard Hoffman said. Therealso have been reports of embalming fluid thefts from funeral homesin Louisiana and New York. The company sent suggestions to funeral homes about securestorage, and the industry is taking note. "We'd always kept our chemicals in our garage but since weheard about it, we keep everything stored inside the funeral home,in the morgue" under lock-and-key, said Christopher Dinan of DinanFuneral Home in Philadelphia. Kirlin said police have their hands full putting out the bigfires — the cocaine, heroin and marijuana trades — and that wetdoesn't pose the same huge problems associated with those drugs,but she is concerned wet may become more widespread if leftunchecked. "This is a violent drug, and it will turn into a big fire ifit's not watched very closely," Kirlin said.