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Solvent Abuse – What’s This All About?


Also known as “huffing”, the inhalation of substances such as glue and inexpensive household products became popular in the 1970’s when it was adopted by the punk youth subculture in the UK and North America. It was a cheap way to both experience a cheap “high” and was also seen as an act of rebellion, to shock society. Many bands like The Ramones, the Beastie Boys and later on, Nirvana, made references to glue sniffing and other solvent inhalants.

Several films have also depicted the use of inhalants including amyl nitrate, nitrous oxide and diethyl ether as well as aerosols containing computer cleaner and petrol. With so much exposure in both film and the music industry it became inevitable that solvent abuse would become popular amongst teenagers keen to experience a cheap method of intoxication.

Many teenagers experiment, and then give up the practise. Others become ‘hooked’ and move on to more dangerous substances, as cravings give way to full blown addiction. Inhalant abuse is still a massive problem today and is only under-reported because death is often attributed to another cause such as stroke or heart attack, even if it was actually caused by inhalant abuse.

The Dangers

  • Hypoxia. This can occur when inhaling fumes from a plastic bag or any equipment that involves not adding room air or oxygen causing deprivation of oxygen, similar to altitude sickness.
  • Gas stored under high pressure cools quickly upon release and can cause frostbite if inhaled straight from the container.
  • Many inhalants can catch fire or explode if they come into contact with fire, so can be lethal if combined with smoking.
  • Continual solvent abuse can cause cardiac failure or arrest. Some cause loss of hearing, limb spasms and damage to the brain and central nervous system whilst others can cause organ damage. Inhaling a high concentration of fumes will often result in death. 
  • Aspiration of vomit is a common cause of death if an inhalant abuser loses consciousness and vomits, blocking the airway and preventing breathing.
  • Female inhalant users who indulge in the practise whilst pregnant can inflict birth defects and disabilities in their babies and the baby may be smaller than is healthy when born.
  • Butane gas is the most misused substance used for inhalant purposes in the UK. Commonly inhaled in the form of lighter fuel it can cause sudden death by cardiac arrest, or at the least cause cardiac arrhythmia, asphyxia and narcosis. It was responsible for 52% of solvent-related deaths in the UK in 2000. One person dies every week in the UK from solvent abuse.

A typical home has around 30 bathroom and kitchen products that can be abused, like hairspray, nail varnish remover, petrol, deodorant aerosols and some correction fluids. As these substances are legal, often users believe that they are doing nothing wrong when they use them for inhalation purposes.

For many, the first time of trying solvents is also their last. Is it worth it?

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