New Teen-Killing Silent Inhalent
Abuse Epidemic Called 'Huffing'
By Meki Cox
Associated Press
MEDIA, Pa. - Five best friends get together to make a high school health video about the hazards of smoking and drugs. Ten days later, the girls are killed when their car slams into a utility pole. Four of them, including the driver, have traces of a chemical named difluoroethane in their bloodstreams.
Inside the crumpled car, troopers find a can of Duster II, a spray used to clean computer keyboards. Its ingredients include difluoroethane.
The coroner's findings put the teens on a list of 240 people who have died from "huffing" inhalants since 1996, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.
The parents of the girls remain stunned. Last week, they released a statement disputing the findings and suggesting their daughters might have inhaled "the airborne agent" unintentionally.
But studies and doctors who treat teenagers say their subjects tell them that huffing, also called "sniffing" or "wanging," is the easiest high to get and far easier to conceal than the rush from alcohol, marijuana or tobacco.
It's cheap. It's intense. There are no dealers, no pipes, no needles, no track marks. Some teens paint their fingernails with typewriter correction fluid then sniff their fingers all day. Some soak their sleeves in solvent and sniff away, with no one the wiser.
Wade Heiss' preferred means was sniffing air freshener in the back room of his house in Bakersfield, Calif. Two days before Christmas 1995, his older brother caught him in the act. Wade was startled. Moments later, he fell to the floor. His heart had stopped.
Wade was dead at age 12.
"Yeah, I heard about this huffing," says Dr. Richard Heiss, Wade's father, a family practitioner. "But even I didn't know the effects of it, and I'm a medical doctor. Nobody's telling parents about it. Why isn't someone screaming and yelling about this?"
Studies rank huffing fourth among all forms of substance abuse by teens. And what many teens and parents don't realize is that huffing can kill, even the first time, says Harvey Weiss, founder of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition in Austin, Texas.
More than 1,000 products containing "euphoriant" inhalants are widely available, including vegetable cooking spray and deodorant, Weiss says, and the number of easy-to-get chemicals to sniff is growing and changing with time.
"I call it a silent epidemic," Weiss says. "Right now, there's barely any public awareness out there. And in the young person's mind, how can they think this is dangerous if they're not told? They think it's just household stuff."
Most inhalants produce their effects by depressing the central nervous system and slowing the heart, sometimes to an irregular beat. If a user becomes anxious or frightened, the resultant adrenaline release can kick the heart into even more inefficient rhythms, to the point that blood and oxygen no longer reach the brain.
"In a few minutes, someone who seems to be doing fine can be dead," says Earl Siegel, a Cincinnati pharmacist with expertise in inhalant abuse. "People are unfamiliar with how dangerous and prevalent it is."
A federal study of users age 12 through adulthood estimated that new users of inhalants in 1997 had increased to 805,000, from 380,000 in 1991. The study, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, said most new users were aged 12-17.
According to Weiss, seventh- and eighth-graders are the most common users among all teens.
The study called for a broad educational push to cut into those numbers. Congress is considering a bill to designate the week of March 22 as National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week. And SC Johnson, whose Glade air freshener has been an object of inhalant abuse, in October joined with Deloris Jordan, mother of basketball star Michael Jordan, in a campaign to increase awareness. It distributes educational videos to schools, hospitals, drug counselors and social workers.
Delaware County coroner Dimitri Contostavlos said he hoped to raise awareness by releasing toxicology reports on the girls killed in the Jan. 29 car accident.
Loren Wells, Rebecca Weirich and Shaena Grigaitis, all 16; and Tracy Graham and Rachael Lehr, both 17 - juniors at a high school 10 miles outside of Philadelphia - were returning from shopping for prom dresses when their car swerved out of control. The posted speed limit on the twisty, half-mile stretch of road that locals call "Dead Man's Curve" because of numerous accidents is 55 mph. Investigators say the teens' car, driven by Miss Wells, was traveling at 66-88 mph when it hit the pole.
The can of "Duster II" was found in the car two days later.
"No one ever suspected these girls (of inhalant abuse)," Trooper Joseph McCunney says.
"I think this might finally shake a few teenagers' trees and make them afraid about it. There's nothing more final than death," says Dr. Anthony Acquavella, director of adolescent medicine at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
He recounts talking with teens who have sworn they didn't abuse inhalants even as Wite-Out pens, for correcting typewritten errors, fell out of their pockets.
"Why would anyone need Wite-Out these days?" he asks. "No one has typewriters at home anymore."