P H I L A D E L P H I A , July 27, 2001 -- A chemical used to preserve the dead is becoming an increasingly popular drug for users looking for a new and different high, one which often comes with violent and psychotic side effects, officials say.
The chemical is embalming fluid, and users — mainly teens and twentysomethings — are buying tobacco or marijuana cigarettes that have been soaked in it, then dried. They cost about $20 apiece and are called by nearly a dozen names nationwide, including "wet," "fry" and "illy."
"Some people around here think it's just a city problem but it's not," said Julie Kirlin, a juvenile probation officer in Reading, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. "Whether they live in a million-dollar house or a $5,000 house, kids who are smoking pot or crack and are looking for a different type of high are turning to wet." The high that users experience depends on what they're really getting. Many users who want embalming fluid often get it with phenylcyclidine (PCP) mixed in. Embalming fluid is a compound of formaldehyde, 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 embalming fluid appeals to people's morbid curiosity about death," said Dr. Julie Holland of New York University School of Medicine, who has studied drugs including wet. "There's a certain gothic appeal to it."
Drug Can Produce Euphoria, But Also Coma and Seizures
Twenty Houston-area users interviewed for a 1998 study by the Texas Commission on Drug Abuse said effects include visual and auditory hallucinations, euphoria, a feeling of invincibility, increased pain tolerance, anger, forgetfulness and paranoia. Stranger symptoms reported include an overwhelming desire to disrobe, and a strong distaste for meat. "It's prevalent, it's cheap, it's easy to make and it's marketed to children … it comes in little bags with cartoon characters on them," said Edith Pestana, an epidemiologist for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection who took part in the Texas study. "It has become quite popular with college kids, too." Other symptoms may include coma, seizures, renal failure and stroke. 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 the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Community Epidemiology Work Group, composed of researchers from major metropolitan areas. "When people say they've been using fry and they come into the emergency room and are just wild — they have to be strapped down in their beds or they destroy the room — that tells me that PCP's in there," Maxwell said.
Deadly Attack by 14-Year-Old on ‘Wet’
In the Philadelphia suburb of Morrisville, a 14-year-old boy fatally stabbed a 33-year-old neighbor more than 70 times in May 2000, after smoking wet he purchased in Trenton, N.J. The boy, who said he took "wet" to quiet the voices in his head, is serving a seven-year sentence in a juvenile facility. In Connecticut, "illy" first appeared in 1995 and was cited as a factor in at least four deaths. It was believed by users to be marijuana and mint leaves, but tests showed it contained those ingredients plus embalming fluid and PCP, Pestana said. In Oklahoma, three young girls reported last year that they were sexually assaulted by male acquaintances after the group smoked "fry." Although there are no national statistics on usage, many drug experts say anecdotal evidence suggests wet has spread from poor, minority inner-city areas to affluent, white suburban neighborhoods and college campuses. "It seems to pop up in isolated incidents; we see it in [geographic] groupings," said Kate Malliarakis of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Unfortunately it seems to spread by word of mouth, especially with kids."
Reports of Thefts from Funeral Homes
The chemical poses an added problem for police because it is legal. Formaldehyde can be purchased in drug stores and beauty supply stores (it is an ingredient in nail care products). It's also available in many school science labs. Hydrol Chemical Co. in Yeadon, an embalming fluid supplier to funeral homes, has received one or two calls with questions from "parents who found a bottle of embalming fluid in the freezer or in their child's room," chief chemist Richard Hoffman said. There also have been reports of embalming fluid thefts from funeral homes in Louisiana and New York. The company sent suggestions to funeral homes about secure storage, and the industry is taking note. "We'd always kept our chemicals in our garage but since we heard about it, we keep everything stored inside the funeral home, in the morgue" under lock-and-key, said Christopher Dinan of Dinan Funeral Home in Philadelphia. Kirlin said police have their hands full putting out the big fires — the cocaine, heroin and marijuana trades — and that wet doesn't pose the same huge problems associated with those drugs, but she is concerned wet may become more widespread if left unchecked. "This is a violent drug, and it will turn into a big fire if it's not watched very closely," Kirlin said.