There are few things in this world as devastating to a family as the loss of a child. Having the bonds of life broken through disease or some natural disaster is painful enough, but to realize that your precious child was lost to something as preventable as substance abuse is almost unbearable. One small aspect of this national problem is the abuse of inhalants or “huffing”.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that about 20% of all eighth-graders have reported abusing inhalants, but only 15% of twelfth-graders responded to ever abusing inhalants. So how do you explain the fact that more eighth-graders have abused inhalants than twelfth-graders? It may be that inhalants have a devastating impact on the brain and frequent abusers are more likely to drop out of school than non–abusers. Or the abuser may have succumbed to the lethal properties of the substance being abused. Or the number of users may be growing.
In the Personal Safety section of the December 1996 edition of Professional Safety Henry G. Wickes article entitled “Inhaling Helium: Party Fun or Deadly Menace”, brought to light the hazards associated with inhaling helium for fun. It can also remind us of the cold reality of the hazards created by consumers who misuse products for recreation (Wickes, 1996).
Two common gas products that are easily abused and can cause injuries are Propane and Butane. The age group most at risk is 12-25 year-olds; however, it is reported that six percent of all children in the United States have abused an inhalant by the time they reach the fourth grade, or are about 9 years of age.
Propane and butane both react inside the body the same way when inhaled; they provide the abuser with a “high” by depressing the Central Nervous System. Symptoms include alcohol like effects, slurred speech, lightheadedness, lack of coordination, and possible hallucinations and delusions. This state of euphoria lasts for only a few minutes that leads to the abuser continuing the “high” through prolonged use. This practice can lead to asphyxiation and death.
What makes this even scarier is that the product is often inhaled as a group of 2-3 people sitting around in a circle taking turns inhaling the gas as it is discharged from the container. There are two basic hazards with this practice. First is the damage done to the body due to the propane in the nose, mouth, sinuses, esophagus, and lungs. A warning label is attached to many of chemical containers warning of long term effects. There is a secondary hazard of fire.
As the abusers are discharging the gas into the air not all the gas can be inhaled. Some escapes into the environment. In addition, the air that is exhaled contains gas causing more gas to reenter the environment. This environment may be that of a room, an auto, or a hideaway the abuser is using. The gas can create an explosive hazard in and near the area where the act is being performed. A spark created by an electrical outlet, appliance, or perhaps a cigarette may ignite this gas causing a local explosion.
This explosion will be limited in scope to the amount of gas discharged into the atmosphere of the surrounding area. The explosion may even include a flash fire that is extinguished when the gas product is consumed; however, burns would certainly occur to the face, neck, and hands, and most likely catch the clothing on fire. The type and flammability of clothing would be a factor in the severity of burns a person would suffer. Synthetic material may burn deeper into the skin causing even more severe injuries.
Even though the explosion or local flash fire is short in duration the clothing, hair, skin, furniture, curtains, etc. can catch fire and burn on their own. These secondary fires must be extinguished, but most abusers won’t think about having a fire extinguisher on hand before they start “huffing”. In serious cases the fire burns the interior of the nose, sinuses, mouth, esophagus, and lungs depending on where the gas is in the respiratory system at the time the ignition source reaches the gas.
Why would a person take such a risk for a little enjoyment or “high”? This is a question that has plagued mankind for some time. Could it be that the abuser does not understand the dangers involved with this product? Perhaps this is one causal factor.
Campaign’s already exists that provide facts, hazards, and possible end results for abusers, and literature is already available from youth centers, doctors, school counselors, and from school drug prevention programs. This is a case where we must care enough to get the facts ourselves and publicize the hazards so that potential abusers will know the end result of misusing this type of product. Parents of pre-teens through young adults should be especially educated so they may be alert for the signs of abuse and aware of the gas products around the home. Employers should not become complacent about watching for behavior and performance changes from their employees. The costs associated with allowing abuse to occur on the job are potentially staggering. Don’t let the tragedy strike you, be aware and prepared.
– Wickes, Henry G, “Inhaling Helium: Party Fun or Deadly Menace”, Personal Safety Section, Professional Safety, American Society of Safety Engineers, December 1996.