“Huffing” has been among the most persistent forms of substance abuse for decades, but the problem rarely makes headlines, say drug prevention and health experts.
“They’re not the flashy kinds of drugs. (Huffing) doesn’t tend to get our attention,” said Russ Warrington of Scottsdale Prevention Institute, a private, nonprofit group that works to steer students in Scottsdale schools away from drug abuse.
The public hears little about it, Warrington said, except in cases such as the automobile crash Friday in Fountain Hills that killed Mesa resident Martin Bonilla, 38, and Phillip Jacob Staun III, 16, a student at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale.
Authorities say Staun was inhaling aerosol chemicals — a computer-cleaning product — with his friends while he was driving the Cadillac that crashed into Bonilla’s pickup truck.
Alcohol and marijuana are the drugs of choice among many youngsters, but aerosol chemicals and related substances are the drugs of convenience.
“They are all legal substances. There’s just more access to them,” Warrington said.
Paint and paint thinners, glues, gasoline, solvents, furniture polish and fingernail polish, even canned whipped cream are popular for huffing.
The availability of the substances and “the typical bulletproof attitude of adolescents, thinking nothing can hurt them” combine to lure youngsters into danger, Warrington said.
The hydrocarbons in those chemicals can often immediately impair heart, brain and respiratory functions, said Dr. Paul Wax, toxicologist for Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix, which operates the poison control center for Maricopa County.
The effect can quickly render huffers unconscious or otherwise incapacitate them, Wax said.
The cost of a temporary high can be a permanent affliction, said Will Humble, chief of epidemiology and disease control for the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Huffers risk long-term liver, kidney, heart and brain damage, and even blindness, Humble said.
The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition typically gets 100 to 125 calls each year from parents whose children died from huffing, said director Harvey Weiss.
National data indicate youngsters typically don’t think inhaling these chemicals is as dangerous as doing “real” drugs, Weiss said.
A survey of 20,000 Arizona students conducted in 2002 by the Department of Health Services and the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission found that about 10 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders admitted huffing.
“For one in 10 to say they have used inhalants, we call that pretty alarming,” said Steve Sparks, state substance abuse prevention specialist.
The difficulty of detecting huffers also worries experts.
“It’s something that sneaks by parents all the time,” said Shelly Miller, coordinator of the State Alliance for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America under the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.