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Danger in the Air : AIDS Data Raises Concern Over Inhaling of 'Poppers'

March 25, 1986|CAROL McGRAW | Times Staff Writer

Hank Wilson, a San Francisco switchboard operator, became worried five years ago because a boyfriend inhaled a foul-smelling chemical excessively for a sexual "rush." The more he read up, the more upset he became about "poppers."

Concern about alkyl nitrites--marketed as room odorants but known as poppers on the street and on the dance floor--has heightened considerably in recent months after new research into their possible connection to the AIDS epidemic.

"First, they said poppers caused AIDS. Then in 1983 the federal Public Health Service printed a booklet that said nitrites didn't cause immune system suppression. In 1985 they revise the booklet to say 'don't use inhalants.' No wonder there is so much confusion," said Wilson, who has spearheaded the effort in California to place restrictions on their sale. "Hank's the guy who hounded us into doing it," said Bruce Decker, head of the California AIDS Advisory Committee, which last year asked the state health department to require warnings at the point of purchase. So far, officials have not acted on the recommendation.

Wilson's anger--and differences among government officials over how to deal with the chemical--are symptomatic of the debate over alkyl nitrites. In some ways, efforts to regulate the chemicals because of concerns they may contribute to acquired immune deficiency syndrome reprise the arguments over closing gay bathhouses.

While federal officials say that manufacturers have been able to avoid regulation by clever marketing and some gay-oriented businesses have voluntarily dropped the products, state and local governments have stepped into the debate, which has been marked by shifting medical opinions. Eleven states--including New York, which has the most AIDS cases in the country--have restricted sale and use of the chemicals.

Health Concern Cited

And the debate is heating up in California, where county supervisors in San Francisco and Los Angeles and the City Council in West Hollywood are considering similar actions. The Los Angeles board today is expected to order a study on a recommendation of the Public Health Commission to ban sales of poppers, according to aides of Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman.

Dr. Shirley Fannin, deputy director of the Los Angeles County Health Department, recommends a total ban. "Even use as a room (odorant) means than any person who walks into that room will be exposed to it. This is intolerable from a public health standpoint," she said.

"It is a dangerous substance and should be banned," said attorney Walter Kaplan. "It is being marketed as a room (odorant), but the stuff stinks like a locker room, and it is being inhaled. The federal government has failed to regulate it."

Kaplan represents a former San Francisco government clerk, Ted Tilley, who has filed a product liability suit in San Francisco Superior Court against the maker and seller of the odorant for allegedly contributing to a stroke he suffered in 1982.

The federal Food and Drug Administration says that manufacturers have been able to skirt drug laws by marketing the chemicals as incense or room odorants.

"The makers have done their homework," said Edward Nida, an FDA spokesman. "There's not a damn thing we can do about it."

Butyl and isobutyl nitrites are chemically related to amyl nitrite, which was first used in the late 1800s to provide relief from angina pain. Amyl nitrite came encased in mesh pearls, which when opened caused a popping sound--thus the nickname. The drug dilates blood vessels, making it easier for blood to get to the heart.

Amyl nitrite was eclipsed by newer medicines and in 1960 the FDA eliminated a requirement that it be sold by prescription. Nine years later that status was reinstated because there was significant abuse among young adults. In the 1970s, after some manufacturers changed the chemical composition so a prescription was no longer needed, butyl and isobutyl nitrites began appearing in adult book stores, discos, bars, and bathhouses--primarily but not exclusively gay oriented.

In 1978, sales of poppers were estimated in one study at $50 million. Manufacturers will not reveal financial information, but some researchers believe that figure may have doubled. A survey of drug use among high school students conducted in 1979 by the University of Michigan found that one in every nine seniors had tried the inhalants.

The chemicals, which cost from $3 to $8 a bottle, have names such as Rush, Bolt, Locker Room and Crypt Tonight.

When inhaled, they make users feel lightheaded and, some say, act as an aphrodisiac. Drug experts say side effects can range from headaches and fainting to abnormally low blood pressure.

Spreading Abuse Noted

Spot checks of 26 hospitals nationally show growing abuse, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In 1976, there was only one emergency case involving poppers at these hospitals. There were 25 cases in 1984.

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