The red straw from a can of Dust-Off was still near Kyle Williams’ mouth when his mom found him one morning. She playfully tried to shake him awake only to find her nightmare just beginning.
Kyle was dead.
His parents—Jeff Williams, a police officer, and Kathy Williams, a nurse—blame themselves for missing the warning sings that Kyle, 14, had been huffing the compressed air in the Dust-Off for a quick—yet fleeting—high.
Like Kyle’s parents, hundreds of unsuspecting families across the country are affected by inhalant abuse that can kill in a single breath.
In 2005, about 5
percent of girls between 12 and 17 and 4.2 percent of boys—or about 1.1 million adolescents—admitted huffing common household products, according to a study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Other studies, including one completed by the Monitoring the Future study, show that more than 4 million kids have used inhalants and that one in five kids has experimented with inhalants by their eighth-grade year.
"The high that you get is disorientation," says Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.
Huffing, also known as bagging or sniffing, now has the attention of the Alliance for Consumer Education, which recently launched the Illinois Inhalant Abuse Prevention Program to educate parents about the abuse. Williams, from East Cleveland, Ohio, was in Chicago helping spread the word that cheap, household items and everyday products are leading to addiction, permanent brain damage and death for many kids like Kyle.
"The kids get this fuzzy, floaty feeling," says Jocelyn Boudreau, staff educator coordinator at Rosecrance Health Network in Rockford, a not-for-profit substance abuse treatment center for kids ages 12 to 18.
And although the effects of inhalants usually pass pretty quickly, Boudreau says the major problem is what happens to kids’ brains. The damage happens fast and can’t be reversed, she says. Kids may develop permanent memory loss and respiratory problems and long-term use can even lead to mental retardation.
However, Boudreau says most kids don’t realize how much of a threat inhalants pose. They may even think huffing is harmless.
"Perception is key here," she says. "The perception among kids is that huffing is not dangerous."
Boudreau says kids may look for other ways to get high after they have experimented with huffing.
"Kids are looking for acceptance with the behavior," she says.
Yet Boudreau says research shows that as kids get older, inhalant use drops dramatically. "Kids perceive that this is a kiddy drug."
Memory loss for life
Inhalants fall into four broad categories, which include volatile solvents such as gasoline and nail polish remover; aerosols including deodorant and hair spray; gases such as those found in air conditioning units and whipped cream containers; and nitrates that can be found in room deodorizers. Kids know that inhalants are cheap, convenient, legal and easily accessible, allowing them to hide their huffing habit from their parents.
Other than your child appearing drunk and uncoordinated, Boudreau says other warning signs include a distinct chemical odor, rashes around their mouths and noses and chemical-soaked rags or empty cans in their rooms.
And because inhalants are drugs, they have a devastating effect on kids’ bodies and brains.
"They’re doing damage to the still-growing brain," Boudreau says. "When brains cells die, they’re done."
The hazards of huffing
With huffing, death can happen in an instant.
Weiss says Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which is when, after inhaling harmful chemicals, the heart beats erratically and then stops, can happen the first time a kid tries an inhalant or the 100th time.
That’s what happened to Kyle.
Williams says Kyle, who played on the football team and was a typical teenager, was introduced to huffing by a friend who told him it was harmless.
Kyle started experimenting with a three-pack of Dust-Off that Williams bought for a computer project in February 2005. When Williams went to use them, he found the cans empty; Kyle claimed he was just playing around spraying it. So, Williams brought home a jumbo-size can.
In the two weeks of huffing, the signs were already showing. Just days before Kyle died, Williams says he complained of his tongue hurting (the propellant is a type of Freon, which leaves frostbite.) A few days later, he threw up all over his bedroom.
"I kept him home from school the next day and he was fine. I didn’t think anymore of it," Williams says.
But his behavior changed, too. Their last conversation ended in a big fight over Kyle refusing to clean his bathroom.
Williams says he wishes he knew then what he knows now. Maybe Kyle, his oldest child, would still be alive.
He says parents and teachers have to know what to look for in order to save other kids’ lives.
"Information is what’s going to stop it, what’s going to change it," he says.
Jon Scoles, manager and health educator at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, says kids don’t realize the dangers of huffing.
"They think they are getting a nice little buzz," he says. "But basically, they are cutting off oxygen to their brains."
According to Scoles, research suggests that one out of every three kids puts themselves at risk of death the first time they try huffing—and many cases aren’t even reported.
"You don’t know if you’re going to be a lucky one or a statistic," Scoles says.
Parents should pay careful attention to their kids throughout the grade school years. Their conversations about drugs in fourth grade should be different than their conversations in sixth grade because kids are constantly exposed to new information.
"They always have to be one step ahead of the kids," Scoles says. "This should be a dialogue that’s always happening with your kids."
Parents should also recognize that any kid—even their own—can fall into the huffing trap. Kids are curious by nature, but Boudreau says an open dialogue with your kids is vital.
"These are good, outstanding, smart kids," she says. "You can do all those things and your kids can still try it."
Hazards in the home?
Some inhalants commonly abused include:
• Adhesives, such as glues and rubber cement
• Aerosols, such as spray paint, hair spray, air fresheners, deodorant, computer keyboard cleaners, fabric protectors
• Solvents, such as nail polish remover, paint thinner, correction fluid, markers, lighter fluid, gasoline, carburetor cleaner
• Cleaning agents, such as spot removers and degreasers
• Food products, such as cooking sprays and whipped cream in cans
• Gases, such as helium, propane, butane and nitrous oxide
SOURCE: National Inhalant Prevention Coalition
Signs to watch for
There is a common link between inhalant use and problems in school—failing grades, chronic absences and general apathy. Other signs include:
• Paint or stains on body or clothing
• Spots or sores around the mouth
• Red or runny eyes or nose
• Chemical breath odor
• Drunk, dazed or dizzy appearance
• Nausea, loss of appetite
• Anxiety, excitability, irritability
• The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, (212) 922-1560, www.drugfree.org
• National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, (800) 269-4237, www.inhalants.org
• United States Department of Health and Human Services: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,
• Alliance for Consumer Education—Illinois Inhalant Abuse Prevention,
Julie Liotine is the copy editor at Chicago Parent.