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THE SAFETY ZONE

Old High Lures New Generation

Thrill of Inhaling Outweighs Dangers for Many Teens, Experts Warn

May 24, 1999|REGINA HONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

School officials and drug-treatment counselors fear that an old drug habit among teens is gaining increased acceptance: sniffing household products such as air freshener, whipped-cream canisters and furniture polish.

Teens get a quick, inexpensive high from the sniffing--also known as "huffing"--because the chemicals go straight to the brain and can prevent oxygen from entering the bloodstream. But health experts warn that the practice can seriously damage organs and can cause blackouts and even death.

"It's an almost accepted teenage phenomenon because it does happen a lot at some of their parties," said William Smith, founder of first Phoenix House drug treatment center in Orange County. "It's almost like saying 'We're not supposed to use drugs or alcohol, but no one is going to say too much about these other things."

Smith said that when he opened his clinic in 1979, only two or three out of 50 teens in the program inhaled household products. Now, he estimates that more than half of the roughly 30 students in the counseling program inhaled.

Others said the inhaling is especially popular among curious junior high school students. At Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, for example, officials suspect several students recently sprayed aerosol computer cleaner into one another's mouths.

"My fear is that they are using these drugs because they are around and available and don't consider them drugs," said Lynne Bloomberg, who coordinates safety and drug-free programs at Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Bloomberg suspects that some teens who inhale do so for quick thrills and are not necessarily heavy drug users.

"I really think they know it's dangerous, but risk is so fun," she said. "It's exciting and they are curious and want to know how it feels."

Sniffing household products has been a problem for decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, teens mainly inhaled fumes from spray paints, correction fluid and model airplane glue.

Officials now report a new crop of popular inhalants, such as aerosol computer cleaner sprays and tanks of nitrous oxide.

Some of those who inhale are also using other drugs, according to several teens receiving treatment at Phoenix House. The teens and their parents agreed to tell their stories publicly in an effort to help others.

A 16-year-old Costa Mesa student said she used to inhale fumes from furniture polish and whipped cream canisters while using such drugs as cocaine, LSD and marijuana.

The teen said she would inhale during raves and parties to increase her high from other drugs. Most of the products, she said, were at home or easily bought at supermarkets.

Locking up every product in the home is not the solution, said Brent Ekins of the California Poison Control System.

Rather, parents need to be aware of the practice of sniffing and watch for unusual behavior, Ekins said. Signs include chemical odor on the breath, spots or sores around the mouth, irritability and changes in school grades, sleeping or eating habits.

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