WHAT ARE INHALANTS AND HOW ARE THEY ABUSED?

Inhalant abuse is the intentional concentrating and breathing in of gases and vapors with the goal of intoxication. Abused substances include common household products such as fuels, solvents, gases, and any products in aerosol cans. There are over 1,000 household, shop, office, and industrial products that qualify as inhalants.

Most inhalants are central nervous system depressants like alcohol but unlike alcohol, they are not meant to be put inside the body. The effects are quick acting (within seconds) and usually of short duration (15 to 45 minutes).

WHY DO PEOPLE ABUSE INHALANTS?

A statewide study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found several reasons why youth may be attracted to inhalants:

  • Teens believe that because many adults don't know about inhalants, use is more likely to go undetected.
  • Inhalants are inexpensive or free and readily available.
  • Because products used as inhalants are legal for their intended purposes, youth mistakenly believe that inhalant abuse is legal. This is not true. Massachusetts General Law 270, Sections 18 and 19 state that inhalant abuse is illegal. Buying, selling, or possessing products for the purpose of substance abuse is also against the law.
  • Many teens underestimate the dangers of inhalant abuse.

WHO IS LIKELY TO INHALE THESE SUBSTANCES?
Children may begin using inhalants as early as the third grade. In Massachusetts, use peaks in the eighth and ninth grade where about one out of eleven students have abused inhalants (2004). Rates of use tend to decline slowly in high school and in young adulthood. However, inhalant abuse does exist among all age groups, genders and races.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS INVOLVED IN INHALANT ABUSE?

Inhalant abuse can cause sudden death via heart arrhythmia (Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome), suffocation, burns, accidents, or explosions. Long-term effects include damage to the brain, peripheral nervous system, liver, kidney, and bone marrow. It can also lead to birth defects. Users are at risk for both physical and psychological dependence.

IS INHALANT ABUSE ILLEGAL?

Massachusetts Law prohibits the possession, use, or sales of any substance for the purpose of producing an intoxicating effect. Punishment for violations includes a maximum fine of two hundred dollars or maximum imprisonment of six months. Minors are required to provide their names and addresses when purchasing glue or cement containing certain solvents. "No person shall operate any vessel on the waters of the Commonwealth while . . .under the influence of . . . the vapors of glue" (Mass. General Laws ch. 90B, s8). Massachusetts law also forbids the sale of glue or cement to a minor unless it contains oil of mustard or some other equally effective and safe deterrent against smelling or inhaling the fumes.

In addition, the Massachusetts Inhalant Abuse Task Force encourages retailers to restrict sales of abusable products to minors. Several large retailers have programmed their registers to flag these products and require proof of age for purchase.

WHAT ARE THE SIGNS AND SYMPTONS OF INHALANT USE?

The following signs and symptoms often indicate that someone may have abused inhalants: mood swings, irritability, anger, agitation, sleepiness, uncontrolled laughter, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, hallucinations, convulsions, facial rashes and blisters, constant sniffing and coughing, dilated pupils, and odorous breath. The presence of bags, rags, and empty product containers may also suggest inhalant abuse. If parents or youth-serving professionals suspect inhalant abuse, they should contact a qualified substance abuse professional. In cases of emergency, call 911 or the local emergency medical number. The public can call 1-800-327-5050 (MA Substance Abuse Information and Referral Helpline) 24 hours a day/7 days a week to receive statewide referrals and information.

WHAT ARE SOME PREVENTION TIPS FOR PARENTS?

Parents can be powerful educators regarding the dangers of substance abuse. The following suggestions may help guide parents:

  • Prevent inhalant abuse in the home by familiarizing oneself with toxic products, replacing particular substances with water-based solvents, and locking or monitoring stock of toxic products that do exist in the house.
  • Supervise the use of inhalable products if substitutes cannot be found.
  • Initiate conversations with children-they will listen. Remember to emphasize that inhalants should be categorized as poisons, pollutants, and fire hazards rather than drugs. Avoid referring to specific inhalant products and drug-like effects as this may spur curiosity. If asked, some children may deny inhaling because they are embarrassed. (See sample prevention messages.)
  • Foster positive family relationships. Encourage participation in structured and safe activities. Prepare children for peer pressure. Parents and youth can practice how to positively deal with a risky situation.
  • Set limits and let children know the family's stand on substance abuse. Let them know what the consequences of use will be. Make sure all parties are chaperoned and drug free.
  • Urge teachers, coaches, and youth workers, to ensure that youth environments are free of poisons that can be used as inhalants. For more information on the prevention of substance abuse, go to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Website on Inhalant Abuse.

WHAT IS THE IMMEDIATE TREATMENT FOR INHALANT EMERGENCIES?

If a person is found using inhalants, it is important to seek immediate emergency medical assistance (911 or other emergency medical numbers). While waiting for help, move the intoxicated person to his or her side, allowing him or her to get fresh air, and be alert for vomiting. It is also important to not chase or scare the user as this can contribute to sudden sniffing death. Keep the atmosphere calm.

WHERE CAN I GO FOR FURTHER INFORMATION?

  • The Massachusetts Inhalant Abuse Task Force provides information and statistics on inhalant abuse at its web site www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dph/programs/substance-abuse/prevention/inhalant-abuse/inhalant-abuse-task-force.html.
  • The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) sponsors a 24 hours a day/7 days a week Massachusetts Substance Abuse Information and Referral Helpline that offers referrals to effective prevention and treatment programs (1-800-327-5050). In addition to providing an extensive website, the MDPH educates the public and provides prevention and treatment programs. MDPH also licenses outpatient and residential programs for those who are already engaged in inhalant abuse.
  • Fact sheets, statistics, and information for specific youth-serving professionals and youth are available through the Massachusetts Department of Public Health website (www.mass.gov/dph/bsas).

This information is provided by the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services within the Department of Public Health.