The Deadly Drugs under Your Nose

In April 2005, Jeff Williams, an East Cleveland police officer, posted a public email to warn others about the dangers of inhalant abuse. His 14 year old son, Kyle, had died from the effects of inhaling the contents of a can of Dust-Off. His wife, Kathy, is a nurse.

Here are some excerpts from his email:

"First I'm going to tell you a little about me and my family. My name is Jeff. I am a Police Officer for a city which is known nationwide for its crime rate. We have a lot of gangs and drugs. At one point we were #2 in the nation in homicides per capita. I also have a police K-9 named Thor. He was certified in drugs and general duty. He retired at 3 years old because he was shot in the line of duty. He lives with us now and I still train with him because he likes it. I always liked the fact that there was no way to bring drugs into my house. Thor wouldn't allow it. He would tell on you. The reason I say this is so you understand that I know about drugs. I have taught in schools about drugs. My wife asks all our kids at least once a week if they used any drugs. Makes them promise they won't...

...On March 1st I left for work at 10 PM. At 11 PM my wife went down and kissed Kyle goodnight. At 530 AM the next morning Kathy went downstairs to wake Kyle up for school, before she left for work. He was sitting up in bed with his legs crossed and his head leaning over. She called to him a few times to get up. He didn't move. He would sometimes tease her like this and pretend he fell back asleep. He was never easy to get up. She went in and shook his arm. He fell over. He was pale white and had the straw from the Dust Off can coming out of his mouth. He had the new can of Dust Off in his hands. Kyle was dead."

Extent of Inhalant Usage in Our Youth

Inhalants are the drug of choice among pre-teens and early teens. The peak age of inhalant abuse is between 14 to 15 years, with onset in children as young as 5 or 6 years of age. Usage typically declines by 17 to 19 years of age but can continue into adulthood. The 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health concluded that approximately 22.3 million Americans aged 12 or older reported using inhalants at least once during their lifetimes, (8.9% of the population). There were 729,000 persons aged 12 or older who had used inhalants for the first time within the past 12 months, (70.4% were under age 18). Despite these numbers, the relative danger of inhalant abuse remains largely unrecognized by parents, law enforcement, educators and health professionals.

What is the Allure of Inhalants?

The high is usually short-lived, yet intense. At first, inhalants have a stimulating effect. Additional hits may make the individual feel euphoric, dizzy, giddy, and light-headed, similar to feeling drunk. Because intoxication lasts only a few minutes, abusers frequently try to prolong the high by continuing to inhale repeatedly over the course of several hours. Repeated hits may lead to feelings of agitation; the user can become violent.

Probably the biggest draw to using inhalants is the availability and cost of the drug. You can find inhalants in your home or buy them at any local grocery, hardware or variety store. Buying these products is perfectly legal. Containers are easy to hide (even in clear view). You don't need a dealer or extensive drug paraphernalia. Parents are generally unaware of any problem and kids can easily explain why they have these products if they are caught.

What is Usually Inhaled?

Inhalants include a wide variety of substances that give off vapors or fumes which can be inhaled; adhesives (PVC cement, airplane glue), aerosols (deodorant, spray paint) solvents and fuels (gasoline, paint thinner), cleaning agents (correction fluid, dry cleaning fluid), compressed air (Dust Off), dessert toppings (whipped cream), room deodorizers, and medical anesthetics (nitrous oxide, chloroform).

How Are Inhalants Abused?

  • sniffing or snorting fumes from containers
  • spraying aerosols directly into the nose or mouth
  • bagging: sniffing or inhaling fumes from substances sprayed or deposited inside a plastic or paper bag
  • huffing from an inhalant-soaked rag stuffed in the mouth
  • inhaling from balloons filled with nitrous oxide


Signs of Inhalant Abuse

  • breath and clothing that smells like chemicals
  • spots or sores around the nose or mouth
  • paint or chemical stains on body or clothing, especially around the hands or face
  • drunken, dazed, drowsy or glassy-eyed look
  • nausea, loss of appetite, drooling
  • anxiety, excitability, irritability
  • red or runny eyes/nose
  • slurred speech
  • lack of coordination


Inhalant Abuse Death

The most significant acute health effect of inhalant abuse is death, referred to as sudden sniffing death. 55% of the deaths linked to inhalant abuse are from this syndrome. Sudden sniffing death is the result of sudden cardiac arrest. Certain inhalants, especially fluorocarbons and butane, produce ventricular fibrillation; deadly irregular heartbeats. These products include lighter fluid, fuel, spray paint, hair spray, deodorants, room fresheners, etc. 22% of inhalant abusers who die of sudden sniffing death syndrome are first-time users.

Suffocation or asphyxiation is most often the result of the method used to inhale the substance. Ordinarily, baggers place their heads in the bag filled with an inhalant or attach the bag over their nose and mouth. Huffers saturate a cloth or piece of clothing and inhaled deeply, or put the item directly into their mouths. Either method can result in a larger concentration of the inhalant combined with a decreased oxygen level which can lead to unconsciousness. If this occurs with the bag still in place or a sock stuck down the throat, suffocation or asphyxiation are possible.

Law Enforcement First Responders: Emergency Guidelines for Inhalant Abuse

  • Remain calm, do not excite or argue with the abuser while they are under the influence.
  • Approach with caution, inhalant abusers may be impulsive and/or violent. Fear, activity, excitement or stress may cause sudden heart failure.
  • If the person is unconscious or is not breathing call for paramedics. Remove vapor source and initiate CPR to stabilize. Most victims at this point will not survive the ride to a hospital.
  • There are no medications to reverse acute inhalant intoxication. The only way the body rids itself of inhalants is by exhaling and through the urine.
  • Check for clues to what inhalant was used. Look for unexplained abusable hidden products nearby or in the possession of suspected abuser (aerosol sprays, paint, lighters, glues, solvents, propane). Provide emergency medical personnel with all information.
  • If the person is conscious, keep them calm and in a well-ventilated area.
  • Never leave the subject alone.
  • Many inhalants are not detectable in the bloodstream without special tests or leave the system entirely within a few moments of use. Many deaths are labeled as accidental. Secure the scene for an accident or death investigation especially when clues of inhalant abuse are evident. Collect all appropriate evidence for forensic analysis.


Laws Related to Inhalant Abuse

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that although inhalants are not regulated under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), many state legislatures have attempted to deter youth from purchasing these chemicals by placing restrictions on the sale of these products to minors. As of 2000, thirty eight states had adopted laws preventing the sale, use and/or distribution to minors of various products commonly abused as inhalants. Some states have introduced fines, incarceration or mandatory treatment for violations of these laws.


Although parents are more proactive than ever before in talking with their children about illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and LSD, they often ignore the dangers posed to their children from common household products that contain volatile solvents, gases, adhesives, aerosols, etc. Parents and children need to understand that even a single episode of inhalant abuse can be deadly. Additionally, regular abuse of these inhalants can result in serious harm to vital organs, including the brain, heart, kidneys, and liver.

Law enforcement agencies have traditionally concentrated their limited resources on arresting and prosecuting suspects involved in the manufacture, sale, and delivery of perceived more dangerous drugs: amphetamines, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and prescription medications. Drug awareness educational programs are usually associated in partnerships, such as the DARE program. Inhalants may be mentioned in such classes, but are rarely a focus. Recent studies have indicated that inhalants may be the most significant gateway drug.


Officer Jeff Williams' email continued:

...April 2nd was 1 month since Kyle died. April 5th would have been his 15th birthday. And every weekday I catch myself sitting on the living room couch at 2:30 in the afternoon and waiting to see him get off the bus. I know Kyle is in heaven but I can't help but wonder if I died and went to Hell.


It's easy to say hay, it's my life and I'll do what I want. But it isn't. Others are always affected. This has forever changed our family's life. I have a hole in my heart and soul that can never be fixed. The pain is so immense I can't describe it. There's nowhere to run from it. I cry all the time and I don't ever cry. I do what I'm supposed to do but I don't really care. My kids are messed up. One won't talk about it. The other will only sleep in our room at night. And my wife, I can't even describe how bad she is taking this. I thought we were safe because of Thor. I thought we were safe because we knew about drugs and talked to our kids about them...


You have been educated and warned. Inhalant abuse can happen in your own home. It is definitely happening on your beat. Pass the message along.