Sunday, September 03, 2006

Huffing

Before I moved to Alaska, I considered myself fairly knowledgeable about the use of illicit drugs. I was, after all, a child of 60s and 70s who had lived in southern California for six years in the mid to late 70s, and illicit drug use was viewed quite casually. Many of my friends at that time had smoked pot (marijuana), snorted coke (cocaine), dropped acid (LSD), and eaten mushrooms (usually psilocyban), and spoke of their experiences without compunction. And alcohol, of course, was the social glue of college life. But I had never even heard of huffing.

When I moved here, I discovered that huffing is the most common form of substance abuse in rural Alaska. Huffing and sniffing are forms of inhalant abuse (sometimes known as “solvent abuse” in other parts of the world): deliberately breathing in fumes of a substance in order to get high. There are over a thousand substances which can be huffed; indeed, one inhalant abuse counselor says that anything which is not air can be huffed. He is probably right.

In the villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, gasoline is the most common substance being huffed. Even at $5 per gallon (that’s village price; in Bethel we’re only paying $4.86 per gallon. HA!), gas is a cheap way to get high and is readily available.

Four-wheel ATVs are everywhere in the villages; they are the primary mode of transportation. It is a simple thing for a kid to unscrew the gas cap, stick his (or her) nose in and take a few deep whiffs. Some kids soak a rag in gasoline and breathe deeply through it. They may keep the rag in a ziplock baggy and huff repeatedly.

Other popular substances for huffing in the Delta are propane, Magic Markers, glue, perfume, hair spray, and Lysol. In the Bethel grocery stores, hair spray and Lysol are only sold at the check out stand, to prevent inhalant abusers from using them to get high in the store and then putting the empty can back on the shelf. The current prize for “brand snobbery” among huffers goes to Axe deodorant—it is, right now, the coolest thing to be huffing. Apparently it contains toluene, which produces the most desirable high. Also on the “cool” list is John Deere brand yellow paint. Who knows why? It just is.

Huffing behavior often begins very young, sometimes by 7 or 8 years of age. Most huffers are young people between 10 and 17 years old, but the habit may persist into the twenties or thirties. I have seen a 34-year-old man as a patient who admits to huffing. The behavior seems to peak in 14 and 15-year-olds; after that age they are more easily able to obtain alcohol and marijuana. Most huffers say that they would prefer to drink and smoke pot if they could.

The high from huffing lasts for about 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the substance used. The short duration is one of the appeals; teens can get high in their bedrooms on common household products and then come down for dinner without anyone noticing. It is believed to be a psychotic kind of high, riveting, intense, more powerful than marijuana or alcohol; more like an opiate high. And highly addicting. It occurs almost immediately after inhaling, and makes the user feel giddy, carefree, powerful. A former huffer told me that is was just lots of fun; she and her friends would giggle and laugh uncontrollably for a little while.


Huffing has become deeply interwoven in the culture of rural Alaska. Studies in the lower 48 usually indicate that something like 20% of eighth graders have tried inhalants at least once. Anecdotal reports from village teenagers and from health aides are that nearly 100% of the kids in their villages have tried it. It is a staggering thought. We recently had a death in one of the villages from huffing. A 10-year-old boy wrapped his lips around the opening in a five-gallon gas can and took a few deep fast breaths. Less than an hour later, he was dead.

Permanent brain damage can result from long term inhalant abuse, and sudden death is possible from even a single use. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome occurs when an acutely intoxicated huffer is startled, causing a sudden release of catecholamines which excite the heart to become arrhythmic and cardiac arrest occurs.

Physiological effects of short term use include severe headaches, rashes around the nose and mouth, anorexia and weight loss, rapid or irregular heartbeat, red and glassy eyes, nausea and vomiting, night sweats, frequent cough, drowsiness, constipation, and diminished sensitivity to pain, among others. When some or many of these symptoms are suddenly present in a young person who did not have them before, it may be a tip-off to huffing. A noticeable chemical or gasoline odor on the breath is a definite clue.

The long term physiological effects are more severe. Besides death, they include brain damage, loss of vision and hearing, slurred speech, forgetfulness, and damage to liver, kidneys, heart, lung, bone marrow, and central nervous system.

The short term psychological effects of huffing are part of what makes this population so difficult to work with in recovery. These include emotional volatility, paranoid delusions, passive-aggressive attitude, memory loss, impaired judgment and coordination, severe mood swings, and temporary hallucinations, both auditory and visual.

The long term psychological effects include inhalant psychosis, ongoing hallucinations, lowered intelligence, and anti-social personality disorder.

The problem of inhalant abuse tends to be under-recognized, in part because we (as parents, or as health care providers) don’t think of it, don’t look for it, don’t ask about it. In this area, if you ask a huffer whether he uses drugs, he’ll say no. Gasoline is not a drug. Hair spray and Lysol and Axe deodorant are not drugs. If you ask a huffer if she huffs, she will be very reluctant to tell you that she is inhaling chemicals or solvents.

Yupik Eskimo culture takes pride in honesty; for the most part, a direct question will receive an honest response. Patients are very candid and do not tend to minimize how much alcohol they drink; they may volunteer without being asked that they smoke marijuana. Huffers, on the other hand, are generally ashamed of huffing, and will not admit it easily. Of the many forms of substance abuse, it is ranked the lowest of the low. Huffers are sometimes referred to as “brain-dead gasheads”.

Treatment for inhalant abuse is long and difficult. A number of substance abuse treatment centers in the lower 48 have inhalant programs; but, to the best of my knowledge, the only treatment center exclusively for inhalant abuse is the one right here in Bethel, Alaska.

The McCann Center opened in 2003. It is a residential facility with 14 beds and a waiting list over a year long. Length of stay is typically 8 to 14 months, at a cost of $300/day per resident. Since it opened, 90 graduates have completed the program there, and for some it was a life-changing, life-saving experience.

But relapse is not uncommon among inhalant abusers. Kids at McCann Center are often abused, neglected, angry, and sometimes violent to start with, kids with severe emotional disturbance. If they are simply returned to the environment in which the behavior began, it is highly likely to recur. Counselors at the McCann Center say that the kids need 24/7 supervision for two years after leaving the program. Of course, not all kids who experiment with inhalants have such severe emotional problems. Huffing may result from simple boredom and peer pressure. But it can quickly become addictive and ruin lives.

The key is prevention. An ounce of it is worth ten pounds of cure. Adults need to be more aware of the pervasiveness of huffing, the easy and cheap availability of substances that can be used, the strong peer pressure to do so, and the early signs and symptoms of the behavior. Young people need to be educated about the devastating effects of huffing on their bodies, questioned about what their friends are up to, and noticed when their own behavior undergoes a sudden change. We all need to be paying attention.

An excellent article was published in the American Family Physician on inhalant abuse in September, 2003. It was entitled “Recognition and Prevention of Inhalant Abuse”, by Carrie Anderson, M.D. and Glenn Loomis, M.D. Here is the link:
http://www.aafp.org/afp/20030901/869.html


Many thanks to the staff at McCann Center for source materials and information on inhalant abuse in the Y-K Delta.

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26 Comments:

Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Many thanks to scanman (http://www.catscanman.net/blog/) who was first to notice this post. For some mysterious reason, comments had been disabled; he was unable to comment, so he placed a post on his own blog about it, which was how I discovered the problem. The glitch is now fixed, and I am a tiny bit wiser. THANKS, SCANMAN!!

Sunday, September 03, 2006 11:35:00 AM  
Anonymous scan man said...

:)

Sunday, September 03, 2006 6:12:00 PM  
Blogger healthpsych said...

Very interesting read. This is a big problem in Australian Aboriginal communities also.

Sunday, September 03, 2006 7:22:00 PM  
Anonymous may said...

this has nothing to do with this particular post. i just want to say thanks for dropping by my blog. it helps to know that i am not alone in trying to make sense over the TNT experience.

Monday, September 04, 2006 5:19:00 PM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

I had heard that the habbit was on the rise in the U.S. but didn't realize how much so.. i will definetly keep it in mind when my munckins grow up.. it's really scary to think about.. i remember once reading something that said it actually crystalized the brain cells and that was why it did so much damage?

Monday, September 04, 2006 7:18:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

scanman--*grin* and *wink* back at you!

healthpsych--thanks for visiting.

may--I think we all had the wind knocked out of us on this one. Now we are getting over it, and you have helped. Thank you.

(for anyone who may have been on blogvacation for the last week, the background on the TNT controversy is at Moof's blog, http://moof.blogsplot.net; at Flea's blog, http://drfleablog.blogspot.com; and a nice closure post on May's blog, http://www.aboutanurse.com. It has been an emotionally tumultuous week in the medblogosphere.)

Monday, September 04, 2006 7:31:00 PM  
Blogger El Duderino said...

Wow what an eye opener! With so many substances available for abuse how do parents and educators restrict access if huffing is suspected?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006 11:07:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Huffing is a huge and very scary problem. Wolfbaby--I have not heard of a "crystalizing" process, that's a new one on me. I'm tending to doubt it physiologically. El dude--as you imply, restricting access is nearly impossible as huffable substances are practically endless and commonly available. Treatment is directed at addressing underlying issues of depression, hopelessness, abandonment, dysfunctionalism, etc. Equally daunting! Awareness and education are two big pieces.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006 7:41:00 AM  
Blogger Borneo Breezes said...

You have captured the scariness of this situation well. Thanks for covering it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006 10:09:00 AM  
Anonymous Ellie said...

Wow, I had no idea it was such a problem there in AK. I just had a case of it myself (in NH), and I was suprised, thinking it was passe. A very enlightening read!

Friday, September 08, 2006 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Thanks for the info! I know very little about huffing, but had never heard of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. I went & looked some more. We've got a lot of meth around here, but I really have no clue how much huffing.
Thanks again.

Thursday, September 21, 2006 3:57:00 PM  
Anonymous MirWar said...

(From Belgium-Europe)

A while (1998) ago i spent some time in the USA (Massachussetts) as part of an exchange programme. It was also there that for the first time i was confronted with, what you call, huffing...i've never seen or heard about this behaviour her in Belgium (that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, but i think it happens here on a smaller scale...but i might be biased of course).
I have always thought that the phenomen occured because of a lack of alternatives. (what you also seme to indicate when you claim that 'Most huffers say that they would prefer to drink and smoke pot if they could')...Maybe in this there is a key to prevention. Maybe it's better to allow a form of social controlled 'druguse' then to make all drugs socially 'uncontrolled'?

Friday, January 05, 2007 5:06:00 AM  
Blogger Burnout said...

(From Turkey)

Thank you for the post.
I found it to be informative and very clear.

Thursday, May 10, 2007 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007 11:47:00 AM  
Anonymous gar said...

I know 1st hand how big a problem this is in the USA. my 17 year old son passed away 12/24/06 from huffing "air duster"(3m dust remover). I didn't know then how popular it is. but since have become to know via the internet. I also grew up in the 70's and tried a lot of recreational drugsin my younger years. And there were a few "huffers" back then but mostly tulenol or paint thinner, etc. now anything in an aeresol can is subject to abuse.
and the artcile is right, these aren't drugs but it is still substance abuse. It is out of control and when company's like 3M that manufacture it and let retailers like Walmart (where my underage son purchased it) sell it it will only get worse. You can't go through any check out aisle in Walmart with out seeing a small can right there in plain sight.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 9:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My brother has been huffing gas since he was about 7 or 8... he stopped for a while. He's now 28 years old, and an alcoholic... but with the economy the way it is, it's much less expensive to drop a dollar in a gas can and have at it I suppose. I'm so worried about him. He's recently started again... he's been huffing for about a week now, and I'm at a loss as to what I should do. I know the right thing would be to call the police. And try to get him some help but then I have the rest of the family to deal with.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009 7:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I've been searching for answers as to what the long term effects are or could be on someone that huffed gas. I'm woodland ndn n almost 34 yrs old. When I was 11 going on 12 or something like this some other woodland ndn kids showed me huffing gasoline. We huffed it pretty much all summer that yr n into the fall. We huffed for hours from when we got up till probally 2 in the morning idk. It was a old red medal gas can back then. So I ask my doc to check n see n he claimed that it couldn't n wouldn't have any physical n memory type effecs. I've created a good life for myself long since n followed my dreams n still do literally from long b4 I did this n as they come. I do have much health stuff but also from a black mold infested trailer I used to live in for about 5 yrs on a rez near here....n again the docs claim that black mold wouldn't do to one as I am sick. Anyway....whatever comes to you to share would be great. Miigwetch/waewaenan/ thank you. www.myspace.com/ogiicheduekwe nibabaugdonnas@yahoo.com

Friday, August 21, 2009 6:50:00 PM  
Blogger Cate said...

I wish I knew the magic bullet for prevention...

hooperbaytundra.blogspot.com

Thursday, October 29, 2009 9:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

shits as real as is gets the brain damage is horrible but you cant notice only others can. and going crazy sucks

Sunday, December 27, 2009 6:10:00 PM  
Blogger David Rozgonyi said...

I don't have any huffing experience, a bad story, or even live in the US. I found your blog by accident, and wanted to say thanks for the interesting article and perspective.

Monday, February 01, 2010 5:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. I often wonder of the long term effects. I too use to huff when I was 13 and did it because the boy I liked was doing it. Also it was a cheap high. We used rubber cement and engine starting fluid. I am very ashamed of this and always have been. So of coarse I have never mentioned it to any doctors. Interesting enough while in college for Industrial Design, I had a professor stress how important it was to wear a mask when using paints, glue, etc. He stated if we didn't we would get arthritis at an early age. While at school I wore the best ventilation mask I could get. I am now 37 and have been suffering from arthritis for 6 years. I am wondering if my stupid summer of huffing could have caused this and what other damage it may have caused.

Monday, March 01, 2010 3:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I inhaled petrol at the age of 15, all day everyday for two years straight, the next 10 years of my life were a living hell, you are correct about the long term psychological effects,I'm only coming out of it now at the age of 27, Iv been scouring the net for hours and this is the most relevant article I have found, I would be happy to talk to you about my experience as I would like to understand It better myself. my email is edmungus@hotmail.com

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 2:45:00 AM  
Blogger hakan altan said...

thank you

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 2:05:00 AM  
Blogger yalittlefecker said...

Just a note: Huffing is nothing like opium not at all!
Its far more like Alice in Wounderland/Narnia or the major boobage episode of southpark, Im not joking! I, in the past have taken almost every substance known to man and nothing is like huffing petrol nothing. I used to go to another world with such consistency that if I huffed again, even a year later I would meet the same beings go to the same places and continue past adventures. I had friends there who would guide me around this other realm. This to me is why it was so addictive and so dangerous what a place for a 14 year old! Just like the story books!
In the end of course it left me slow, depressed, and out there unable to connect with this world.

Regards

Thursday, November 04, 2010 2:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information. It scares me that my chidren can try this in our village.

Monday, June 04, 2012 3:25:00 PM  
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