Point of View

Misusing inhalants, particularly computer air dusters, prevalent among US youth

March 29, 2014 

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2013, a 22-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student was found dead in his home just a few blocks away from the School of Social Work where I work.

By all accounts, he was a warm, happy and fun-loving person who cherished his school, friends, family and fraternity. The Chief Medical Examiner’s investigative report concluded that his death was primarily due to acute 1,1 difluroethane toxicity. His autopsy examination noted that he was found face-down “with a can of computer duster/cleaner spray in the bed, and multiple similar empty cans elsewhere in the room” and that this substance “can have cardiotoxic effects, and likely caused an acute cardiac arrhythmia in the decedent.”

Inhaling volatile substances such as computer air duster to achieve intoxication is among the most prevalent and pernicious forms of substance misuse. On even the first occasion, inhalant misuse can cause serious heart, lung, liver, brain and kidney damage and even death.However, inhalant misuse is a hidden epidemic because few health care providers, social service workers or educators are aware of it in the patients, clients and students they serve, although such misuse is endemic in these populations. Inhalants are also the least-researched of psychoactive substances.

Literally hundreds of commercial products are inhaled for their psychoactive effects, the most common being gasoline, glue, spray paint, paint thinner and the gases butane, propane and Freon. In 2008, my colleagues and I surveyed 723 adolescents and were surprised to find that, of the 60 inhalant products we assessed, the second-most prevalently used was computer air duster spray – nearly 15 percent of youth reported a history of inhaling it.

In 2010, we published the related report “Inhalation of Computer Duster Spray: An Emerging Public Health Threat,” which identified air dusters as among the most reliable (and therefore misused) inhalant intoxicants. Also in 2010, we examined all inhalant-related fatalities over a nine-year period in North Carolina and found that one-third were due to computer air dusters. Most of the inhalant-related deaths in North Carolina were among young, Caucasian men with a history of other drug use; almost one-fifth were students.

Recent findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicate that more than 1 in 9 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders in North Carolina have “sniffed glue, breathed the contents of spray cans or inhaled any paints or sprays to get high.” These findings and those of other national surveys such as the Monitoring the Future study of high school seniors and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that inhalant misuse is prevalent among U.S. youth and young adults.

Over the past two decades, I have heard from many parents of youths who have died while using inhalants. One mother wrote me after discovering her son dead in his room on the day she was to drive him to college to begin his freshman year. Another family was distraught after losing a 14-year-old daughter who had been inhaling hair spray. More recently, I have been asked to comment on deaths that occurred in Florida and Illinois when young drivers hit and killed other persons while intoxicated on inhalants.

Currently, there are few efforts to systematically track inhalant-related deaths in the U.S., so many such deaths likely go unacknowledged. Nationally, we need to determine what role inhalant misuse plays in the deaths and disorders of young people and implement a plan that will reduce the horrific toll it takes.

At a minimum, the National Institute on Drug Abuse should fund more inhalant prevention and treatment research. Localities, product manufacturers and retailers could take regulatory and voluntary actions to reduce the availability of misused inhalant products. Parents, health care providers, social service professionals, educators, clergy and others need to be educated about inhalant misuse. Until we address this problem, there will be many more tragic losses like that of the UNC student.

Dr. Matthew O. Howard is associate dean for Faculty Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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