Substance misuse: The forgotten killer 16/08/06
Volatile substance abuse no longer has a high profile, but it was still responsible for 13 deaths among young people last year. Ellie Munro finds out how to spot the warning signs.
Young people are attracted to solvents at a much younger age than controlled substances, but there is no stereotypical "sniffer", according to substance abuse prevention charity Re-Solv. Sometimes they start misusing because they want to experiment or are just bored. For other young people, it can be a way to cope with problems at school, or with family or friends.
It is an easy and accessible way to shock or impress. Effects include intoxication - where the young person may look drunk - dizziness, hallucinations, euphoria and a loss of inhibitions, as well as headaches afterwards.
The products available
There are hundreds of household products on the market that can be used. The most popular ones include butane gas, correction fluids, deodorant aerosols, paints, paint thinners, petrol and air fresheners. New forms of misuse include "dusting", which involves inhaling compressed air from sprays used for cleaning computer keyboards. All the products tend be readily available, cheap and usually legal to buy.
The warning signs
The high caused by sniffing is short, so it is often hard to tell if someone is abusing. Look out for unusual moodiness, violent mood swings, secretiveness and attitude problems. Re-Solv also suggests looking out for concealed household products and empty aerosol containers. There might also be signs of perioral eczema, or glue-sniffer's rash, which causes red spots around the nose and mouth, but this symptom will only occur with certain substances.
Solvents can make a user drowsy, confused, aggressive and willing to take more risks. They are not physically addictive but they can encourage dependency. Damage can occur to the brain, lungs and kidneys. Solvents can trigger a fatal heart attack. Some products can also burn the skin and cause severe breathing difficulties.
Number of deaths
In 2004, 13 under-18s died from volatile substance abuse in the UK, according to St George's, University of London. This was an increase of four deaths from the previous year. Inhalation of gas fuels is the biggest killer, causing eight of the 13 deaths. Volatile substances cause more deaths among 10- to 15-year-olds than all other illegal drugs put together.
Why is it important to tackle the problem early?
According to Re-Solv, teenagers who abuse substances are more likely to try harder drugs as they get older. Therefore, by spotting the signs of misuse early and putting the young person in contact with a support agency as soon as possible, professionals may be preventing young people from developing a serious addiction in later life.
STEVEN'S TRAGIC DEATH
The 4 October 2005 started just like any other day for mum Nicollete Nicolle. She had been looking after her children and was waiting for eldest son Steven Blacker to return from a friend's house in Somercotes, Derbyshire.
But instead of the 14-year-old bounding through the door as usual, she received a call from the police. "They told me Steven had suffered a heart attack while on his motorbike and died," she recalls.
"I couldn't believe it."
Nicollete spent the next month tracking her son's last movements and established that the day before the accident he had been sniffing petrol.
"It was the latest craze," she says. "Loads of young people were doing it locally. I'm convinced the sniffing petrol led to the heart attack."
Since Steven's death, Nicollete has been campaigning for better awareness of solvent abuse. "It's a largely forgotten issue, yet it continues to kill lots of young people," she says. "I'd hate for any family to have to go through what we've experienced. Steven's death has hit the family hard."
FIND OUT MORE
The best initial point of contact is the local drug action team. It will have details of relevant centres in your area. The following web sites also provide substance misuse advice:
- www.re-solv.org A charity dedicated to preventing volatile substance abuse
- www.solveitonline.co.uk Supplies free and confidential advice and support on volatile substance abuse
- www.addaction.org.uk Provides information and support on the subject of drug abuse and addiction
- www.talktofrank.com Provides advice and guidance to young people about a range of drug issues.