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Inhalant Abuse Down but Still Snaring Young Kids

Children as Young as 6 Inhale Household Products to Get High
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 19, 2010 -- Inhalant abuse of common household products such as gasoline, paint, or air freshener is on the decline but still a deadly problem for children and teens, according to a new study.

When inhaled, the products can be more deadly than cocaine, researchers say. The problem peaks at age 14, but children as young as 6 are inhaling, says study co-author Toby Litovitz, MD, executive and medical director of the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C.

''Inhalants are dangerous," Litovitz says. “Abuse happens in young children, and it happens with products readily available in your household."

For the study, her team tracked inhalant abuse cases reported to 60 U.S. poison centers from 1993 to 2008. They found a 33% decline over those years, but still gathered data on more than 35,000 cases of inhalant abuse -- including 167 deaths -- reported during the study period. Most cases involved children and teens.

Of note, there is one product category -- propellants -- in which the rate of abuse has increased from 2004-2008. Computer dusters and fluorocarbons are included in this group.

The study appears in the journal Pediatrics.

Inhalant Abuse: The Problem

About 10% to 15% of U.S. teens are thought to have an inhalant abuse problem, Litovitz says. The products are inhaled in a number of ways: a rag soaked with the chemical is held up to the face ("huffing"), the chemical is sniffed directly from the container or a plastic bag ("sniffing"), or the substances are put in a paper bag and the vapors inhaled ("bagging").

The appeal to users? "They get a high, but the high is subtle," Litovitz says. "There is a slight stimulation effect, and a disassociation effect."

When the researchers looked at the 35,000-plus inhalant abuse cases handled by the poison control centers, they were surprised at how young some of the users were. "We saw cases down to 6-year-olds," Litovitz says.

Tracking Inhalant Abuse: A Closer Look

In all, 3,400 different inhalant abuse products were reported, with propellants, gasoline, and paint the most often involved.

Most deadly, however, were butane, propane, and air fresheners.

Other products on the poison centers' report list:

  • Paint thinners
  • Lighter fluid
  • Helium
  • Carburetor cleaner
  • Adhesives and glues
  • Disinfectants
  • Inks or markers
  • Polishes and waxes
  • Aerosol deodorants

The new study differs in a number of ways from ongoing national surveys that track substance use trends, Litovitz says. It doesn't depend on self-reporting, and the cases from the poison centers are categorized by severity, from "no effect resulting from the inhalant exposure" to "death."

Although national surveys have found inhalant abuse equally among girls and boys, the new study found otherwise. "In our data, almost three-quarters of the cases involved boys," Litovitz tells WebMD.

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