Inhalants are a diverse group of chemicals which produce psychoactive (mind altering) vapours; they include a number of such common products as aerosols, gasoline, some glues, solvents and butyl nitrites marketed as "room (de)odorizers" or "air fresheners". The solvents concerned include alcohols, aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes, ketones, chlorinated hydrocarbons and carbon disulphide.
The chief dangers of inhaling solvents are death by suffocation, the development of psychotic behaviour, and the state of intoxication these substances produce. Sniffing moderate amounts of inhalants for even a relatively short time can disturb vision, impair judgement, and reduce muscle and reflex control. Inhalation may be: an occupational hazard (degreasing of metals in machine industry, extraction of fats and oils in chemical and food industry, dry cleaning, painting, plastics industry); use for medical purposes (for example, the inhalation of benzedrine to clear nasal congestion, overdose of ether or other anaesthetics, or inhalation by anaesthetists); or drug abuse for 'kicks'.
Abuse of solvents as a potentially dangerous form of social challenge often begins when one or more members of a group of children or adolescents discover that prolonged inhalation makes them giddy. The symptoms of most forms of solvent abuse are fairly easy to detect and the practice should easily be discovered. Its undetected persistence over a long time points to a lack of supervision by parents or teachers. The extreme youth of those who abuse solvents (the average age is less than 19) brings the added danger that adolescents may be induced to begin experimenting with narcotic drugs or other psychotropic substances.
In the late 1700s, English chemist Joseph Priestley made a gas he called “phlogisticated nitrous air” (nitrous oxide). English chemist Humphry Davy thought it could be used as pain relief in surgery, but instead it became a recreational drug. In 1834, French chemist Jean-Baptiste Dumas named a new gas chloroform. Scottish doctor James Young Simpson used it in 1847 to assist a birth. Soon anaesthesia was more widely used during surgery, bringing better recovery rates. Before anaesthesia, surgical patients would often die of shock from the pain. But any drug that can make people unconscious can also cause harm. Modern anaesthetics are still dangerous because of the risks of suppressing the nervous system.
Inhalants are breathable chemical vapors that produce psychoactive (mind-altering) effects. Although people are exposed to volatile solvents and other inhalants in the home and in the workplace, many do not think of inhalable substances as drugs because most of them were never meant to be used in that way. Young people are likely to abuse inhalants, in part because inhalants are readily available and inexpensive. Sometimes children unintentionally misuse inhalant products that are found in household products. Parents should see that these substances are monitored closely so that they are not inhaled by young children.
Inhalants fall into the following categories:
1. Solvents: industrial or household solvents or solvent-containing products, including paint thinners or solvents, degreasers (dry-cleaning fluids), gasoline, and glues, and art or office supply solvents, including correction fluids, felt-tip-marker fluid, and electronic contact cleaners.
2. Gases: gases used in household or commercial products, including butane lighters and propane tanks, whipping cream aerosols or dispensers (whippets), and refrigerant gases; household aerosol propellants and associated solvents in items such as spray paints, hair or deodorant sprays, and fabric protector sprays; and medical anaesthetic gases, such as ether, chloroform, halothane, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
3. Nitrites: aliphatic nitrites, including cyclohexyl nitrite, which is available to the general public; amyl nitrite, which is available only by prescription; and butyl nitrite, which is now an illegal substance. As recreational drugs, these are known as "poppers".
It is known that many solvents can damage the kidneys, liver, heart, blood and nervous system. Results of inhalation include fatigue, headache, vertigo, vomiting, skin irritation, unconsciousness, even death. Toxicity to the liver and kidneys may cause jaundice and anaemia. Prolonged exposure to benzene may cause leukaemia and anaemia. Carbon disulphide may cause atherosclerosis, ischaemic heart disease, and psychoses. Death from sniffing inhalants occurs suddenly and without warning, as a result of suffocation, respiratory collapse or heart failure.
As yet solvent abuse is reported by relatively few countries. Statistical estimates or survey data were found for only 5 countries and verbal estimates for "some" abuse in only 11 others. The total for all countries is only 7,000, giving a global rate of 0.002 per 1 000. Only one country has moderate rates of abuse, Bolivia (0.66 per 1 000) and no country has a rate over 1 per 1,000. However, the sniffing of volatile solvents, such as glue or paint thinners, is a noted problem among children, and is a significant concern in native communities in North America and Australia.
Data from the US National Household Survey on Drug Abuse show that in 1996, 5.9 percent of adolescents (1.3 million) reported use of inhalants at least once in their lifetimes, and 4 per cent (900,000) reported using inhalants in the past year.
Death from inhalants usually is caused by a very high concentration of fumes.
Solvent abuse should be removed from the the arena of drug abuse and tackled as a consumer safety issue. Children as young as three can be taught the dangers of matches and poisons; they can also grasp the dangers of glue sniffing.