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Cheap Thrill Can Become a Deadly High : Drugs: More and more kids are inhaling the vapors of everything from the butane in cigarette lighters to nail polish remover. The use of inhalants--the kids call it 'huffing'--worries some drug-abuse experts.


These days, everyone knows the use of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine is rampant among youths. But sometimes it takes a teen-ager's death to alert people to another kind of drug problem: the abuse of common household chemicals called inhalants.

In St. Petersburg, Fla., it took the death of Carla Hinkle, 16, who was buried in her "Lady Canes" softball uniform.

In Chicago, it took the death of Christian Whittaker, 16, who, according to his friends, didn't use illegal drugs.

And in Mission Viejo last summer, it took the near-death of a popular football player to wake up the community.

These students were essentially "good kids" who would not think to abuse illegal drugs but who were persuaded to sniff butane, Freon and Scotchgard for a quick, cheap thrill.

And it is this use of inhalants, called "huffing" among kids, that has a growing number of drug abuse experts worried. Others, however, downplay the statistics on inhalants because they are low compared to other kinds of drug abuse.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual survey of teen-agers, released this month, one in every six eighth-graders (17.4%) has used some inhalant, and one in every 20 (4.7%) had used an inhalant in the previous 30 days. The prevalence is equal among males and females.

By high school, 20% of the youths said they had used inhalants at least once.

The national figures represent a small but significant increase from last year, particularly among younger students. According to experts, sniffing was popular in the '60s, but the trend faded until the mid-1980s, when an increase was again noted. More than 1,200 products contain chemicals that could be inhaled.

"Youngsters don't fully understand the lethal potential of using such substances as butane, solvents, glues, nitrous oxide," says social psychologist Lloyd D. Johnston of the University of Michigan, which conducts the annual study of almost 50,000 eighth- through 12th-grade students.

Because inhalants are cheap and easily available, they have become especially popular among younger teen-agers and even children. In a recent study in Ohio, 8% of fourth-grade students said they had used inhalants, says Doug Hall, vice president of the National Parents Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) in Atlanta.

"They use such popular products as whipped cream (aerosol cans), typewriter correction fluid, airplane glue and solvents," Hall says. "These are things found in hardware stores, drugstores, kitchen cabinets, garages and warehouses."

Inhaling butane from cigarette lighters is one of the most common patterns of use. But youngsters will also sniff vapors from nail polish remover, gasoline, paint, aerosol dusting products, air fresheners, ammonia and turpentine. Youths will bleed some coolant from an air conditioner into a plastic bag and pass the bag around at a party or they might even enter a grocery store, siphon off aerosol from products on the shelves and take a hit before fleeing, experts say. The chemicals amyl and butyl nitrate are also popular inhalants, but are more likely to be abused by older youths or adults.

Inhaled chemicals depress the central nervous system and produce a quick high with mild euphoria and dizziness.

Because the substances are not illegal, some younger children may believe they are also not harmful or addictive, says Evelyne McFeaters, associate director of communications with the Chemical Specialties Manufacturing Assn.

"We would like to think there is a set profile of kids who would abuse this stuff. But we see the deaths of 'A' students and superior performers in the community. They think they can experiment once, and they die," McFeaters says.

Education on inhalants must clarify for children that the substances can be fatal on the first use, experts say. Besides the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, inhalants can cause breathing difficulties, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and impaired reflexes. The chemicals can destroy lung tissue and cause pneumonia and kidney failure. Users can appear intoxicated, black out, and become panicky, aggressive or disoriented. They can become dependent on inhalants and suffer withdrawal symptoms if they stop.

The number of deaths from inhalants is unknown, although the federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reported 76 deaths in 1991. The statistics are unreliable, however, because it is difficult to locate traces of inhaled substances in the body.

Yet not everybody considers the use of inhalants serious enough to warrant a new approach to substance-abuse prevention messages.

At the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, statistics show a consistent use of inhalants among youths since 1985, with a slight increase in 1991-92. In the most recent survey, 12.5% of seventh-graders said they had used inhalants at least once in the previous six months.

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