ASCERT has issued the following guidelines for parents on the problem
of solvent abuse among teenagers.
Solvents (Volatile Substance Abuse)
Volatile Substance Abuse has been a steady problem in Northern Ireland
as in other regions. Prevalent mostly amongst teenagers, it is less
expensive, easily accessible and a legal alternative to other forms of
drug misuse. Young people can easily get everything they need from their
own home or off the counter in shops.
What are volatile substances?
Volatile Substances are mainly products that contain solvents (chemicals
that keep products in a liquid form or liquefy solids) and propellants
(pressurised liquid gases used to propel a product from a can). This
means that there is a vast range of household and commercial products
that can be abused.
How are they abused?
The collective term for VSA is generally referred to as 'sniffing', but
the method of abusing volatile substances is usually to either inhale
the vapours from a substance from a bag, a container or from a rag, or
to spray a substance straight into the mouth.
What effect does it have on the person?
The effects on a person will depend on the type of substance being used,
the method of use and the person. Someone abusing a volatile substance
will experience a very rapid acute intoxication. The vapours from the
substance passes from the lungs to the brain causing depression of the
central nervous system. Users report feelings of euphoria,
disorientation and often hallucinations. The person may also experience
dizziness, sickness or headaches. They may lose awareness or
consciousness in what they would call a 'blackout'. The intoxication
could last for 15-60 minutes after use. What are the health risks
There is no physical dependency but the person may experience a
psychological dependency which means they may crave the experience and
so keep abusing. A tolerance can be built up with prolonged use, meaning
that as the person gets used to the substance they will need to use a
greater amount of it to get the same level of hit. There are long term
health risks associated with VSA and people can die from the abuse of
these substances. Most of these deaths are what is known as 'Sudden
Sniffing Death' and in some cases one hit is enough. In 1991 38% of VSA
deaths were first time users. Sudden Sniffing Deaths can occur in a
number of ways. Spraying butane gas into the throat can cause the larynx
to freeze and the lungs to fill with fluid, causing a death similar to
drowning. Asphyxiation may occur from the person putting a bag over
their head, swelling of the airways or loss of consciousness and choking
on vomit. Heart failure can also occur. Propellant gases and butane
affect the heart's rhythm and make it more sensitive to the effects of
adrenalin, which when released into the system because of stress or
exertion can be too much for the heart, causing failure. Less serious
effects on young people are lethargy, laziness and an increase in acne.
Long term effects of volatile substance misuse is not conclusive, but it
is thought that substances in petrol and typewriter correction fluid are
connected to liver and kidney damage and other products in petrol can
cause brain impairment. Some research has linked VSA to reduced
intellectual performance, epilepsy, lack of muscle co-ordination and in
the case of sniffing mothers abnormality of new born children. The use
of other drugs or alcohol with volatile substances can increase risks.
What are the signs of 'sniffing'?
The signs that someone has been 'sniffing' are similar to those
associated with alcohol, but more shortlived. They may be unco-ordinated
and staggering, have slurred speech, and could appear to be
hallucinating, experiencing delusions that they can perform impossible
feats, like flying. In the longer term you may notice changes in
appetite, changes in behaviour such as tiredness or aggressiveness. They
may develop coughs and have headaches. Performance in school may change
for the worse and a lack of interest in usual activities, sports for
example. Changes in the circle of friends may occur. There could be
changes in their sleep patterns, with difficulty getting to sleep or
oversleeping and possibly a downturn in health generally.
How can I prevent my children from taking volatile substances?
The use of drugs of various kinds is a common feature of life in modern
times. Statistics show that a majority of young people of both genders
will come into contact or be offered some form of drug. Most do not use
drugs and of those who do, most do not continue to use over a prolonged
period. However, all young people are at risk. It is important that you
take sensible steps to reduce the risk of abuse of drugs. In the case of
volatile substances, you cannot lock away every substance in your home
that can be misused, but you can keep glues, solvents and gas refills
out of reach. You could take steps to make your children aware of the
facts and dangers of 'sniffing' and encourage them to take a sensible
attitude towards such an activity. This is something you should also do
in the cases of alcohol and illegal drugs. Your children should feel
they can talk to you openly about issues such as this and other problems
they may face and you should pledge them your support.
National Freephone Helpline 0808 800 2345;
ReSolv 028 9070 2493;
ASCERT 028 9260 4422.
Emails received from a former solvent abusers
Lee Reeve from Hull, UK
I am 24 years old, and I am a former teenage solvent abuser. I am
mailing you as I would like you to know that I was psychologically
addicted to solvents. Due to my former addiction I developed epilepsy,
depression and psychosis. I just thought that it may help you to help
others with the same problem.
Joann Powell from Leicester, UK
I am 29 years old and a mother of two. Between the ages of 13-15 I was a
solvent abuser. I was sniffing thinners, gas, glue and correction fluid.
I now have liver problems and am in the process of have a series of
blood tests as I have broken veins (Spider Niave. Suffer from headaches
and have a bad chest. Doing this sort of thing is fun at the time but
not so fun when you pay for it in adult life. If my liver is bad, I will
have to have a transplant, and for what being high on poisonous