Dangers of Poisonous Inhalants

March is designated for poisoning awareness with both National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week and National Poison Prevention Week being scheduled (by different public service agencies) in March.  This month, the Hazelwood Fire Department brings you information on inhalants and the hazards they pose.

Parents often don’t realize that inhalants, cheap, legal and accessible products, are as popular among middle school students as marijuana. One in five students in America has used an inhalant to get high by the time he or she reaches the eighth grade. Even fewer know the deadly effects the poisons in these products have on the brain and body when they are inhaled or ?huffed.? It?s like playing Russian Roulette. The user risks death every single time regardless of their history of this abuse. According to national surveys, inhaling dangerous products is becoming one of the most widespread problems in the country. More than a million people used inhalants to get high just last year.

What is inhalant use? Inhalant use refers to the intentional breathing of gas or vapors with the purpose of reaching a high. Inhalants are legal, everyday products, which have a useful purpose, but can be misused. You?re probably familiar with many of these substances — paint, glue and others. But you probably don?t know that there are more than 1,000 products that are very dangerous when inhaled — things like typewriter correction fluid, air-conditioning refrigerant, felt tip markers, spray paint, air freshener, butane, and even cooking spray. They’re all over your house. They’re in your child’s school. In fact, you probably picked some up the last time you went to the grocery store. Educate yourself. Find out about inhalants before your children do.

Some common household products abused as inhalants:

Adhesives: model airplane glue, rubber cement, household glue

Aerosols: spray paint, hairspray, air freshener, deodorant, fabric protector

Solvents and gases: nail polish remover, paint thinner, type correction fluid and thinner, toxic markers, pure toluene, cigar lighter fluid, gasoline, carburetor cleaner, octane booster

Cleaning agents: dry cleaning fluid, spot remover, degreaser

Food products: vegetable cooking spray, dessert topping spray (whipped cream), whippets

Gases: nitrous oxide, butane, propane, helium

What can inhalants do to the body? Nearly all abused products produce effects similar to anesthetics, which slow down the body?s function. Varying upon level of dosage, the user can experience slight stimulation, feeling of less inhibition or loss of consciousness. The user can also suffer from Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome. This means the user can die the 1st, 10th or 100th time he or she uses an inhalant. Other effects include damage to the heart, kidney, brain, liver, bone marrow and other organs. Results similar to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may also occur when inhalants are used during pregnancy. Inhalants are physically and psychologically addicting and users suffer withdrawal symptoms.

Some common bodily effects of inhalants:

BRAIN: The chemicals abused by inhalant users affect different parts of the brain, producing a variety of sensory and psychological disorders. Many inhalants are thought to dissolve the protective myelin sheath that surrounds neurons – brain cells – resulting in cell death.

CEREBRAL CORTEX: Cellular death here causes permanent personality changes, memory impairment, hallucinations and learning disabilities.

CEREBELLUM: This is the center that controls balance and coordination. Inhalant-related damage results in loss of coordination and slurred speech. Chronic abusers experience tremors and uncontrollable shaking.

OPHTHALMIC NERVE: Toluene may affect this nerve causing sight disorders.

BLOOD: Some substances like nitrites and methylene chloride (paint thinner) chemically block the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood.

LUNGS: Repeated use of spray paint as an inhalant can cause lung damage.

HEART: Abuse of inhalants can result in “sudden sniffing death syndrome.” This is due to a sudden and unexpected disturbance of the heart’s rhythm. All inhalants can produce sudden sniffing death syndrome.

LIVER: Halogenated compounds like trichloroethylene (a component of aerosol paints and correction fluid) have been linked to damage of this organ.

KIDNEY: Inhalants containing toluene impair the kidney’s ability to control the amount of acid in the blood. This is reversible when toluene leaves the body but, in the long-term, kidney stones may develop.

MUSCLE: Chronic inhalant abuse can lead to muscle wasting, reduced muscle tone and strength.

BONE MARROW: Benzene, a component of gasoline, has been shown to cause leukemia.

PERIPHERAL NERVOUS SYSTEM: Chronic inhalation of nitrous oxide (whipped cream propellant) and hexane (found in some glues and camp stove fuels) results in damage to the peripheral nerves. Symptoms can include numbness, a tingling sensation or total paralysis.

ACOUSTIC NERVE AND MUSCLE: Toluene inhalation destroys cells that relay sound to the brain. Chronic abusers can become deaf.

What should I tell my child or students about inhalants? It is never too early to teach your children about the dangers of inhalants. Inhalant use starts as early as elementary school and is considered a gateway to further substance abuse. Parents often remain ignorant of inhalant use or do not educate their children until it is too late. Inhalants are not drugs. They are poisons and toxins and should be discussed as such. There are, however, a few age appropriate guidelines that can be useful when educating your children.

Ages 4 to 7: Teach about oxygen’s importance to life and body functioning. Discuss the need for parental supervision and adequate room ventilation for cleaning products, solvents, glues and other products. Be a good role model; let students see you reading labels and following instructions.

Ages 7 to 10: Define and discuss the term “toxic”; students can practice reading labels and following instructions. Teach about oxygen’s importance to life and functioning, with emphasis on body systems and brain functions.  Discuss the need for parental supervision, following directions and adequate room ventilation. Be a good role model; let students see you reading labels and following instructions. Discuss and discourage “body pollution” and introducing poisons into the body.

Ages 10 to 14: Discuss negative effects of oxygen deprivation. Teach/reinforce peer resistance skills. Discuss environmental toxins and personal safety issues.

Ages 14 to 18: Describe and discuss implications of other gases replacing oxygen in the blood.Describe and discuss short/long-term effects of inhaling toxic products. Describe and discuss negative effects of volatile chemicals on fatty brain tissue. Where appropriate, offer access to counselor or other qualified professional. Respond to questions concerning specific products by describing negative effects and consequences.

It is important to make a note of the Poison Control number for our area so that you can find it quickly if you have a poison emergency.  That number is 314-772-5200.  There has been some press on a national number being implemented, however this emergency number will remain in effect in our area as well.

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