Huffing: The Silent Epidemic Inhaling of Everyday Products No Laughing Matter

Article excerpt

It isn't just pot, needles and other drug paraphernalia that police say parents should be looking for in their teens' rooms these days.

Add to the list such household items as Reddi-Whip, Pam and Elmer's Glue.

Inhaling chemicals from everyday products to get high has become a "silent epidemic," experts say, leading to at least 300 deaths nationwide in the last three years, including six in Florida.

It's called "huffing."

Most recently, a 22-year-old student at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., died Tuesday after breathing laughing gas -- nitrous oxide -- from a plastic bag.

Use of inhalants in Duval County has declined in the past three years; however, it is still higher than the national average, according to a University of North Florida survey of the county's middle and high school students.

In 1998, about 1,220 students reported habitually using inhalants. That is 2 percent of students, which is higher than the national average of 1.1 percent.

Usage is highest in Mandarin and the Beaches, according to the survey. Of students in Mandarin, 12.9 percent reported having tried inhalants. At the Beaches, the percentage was 11.2.

Nationwide, 22 percent of teens reported trying an inhalant at least once in 1998, according to a study done by the New York-based Partnership For A Drug Free America. A study in 1997 showed 23 percent had tried it.

Despite the UNF study, police say they think the use of inhalants is increasing because they have found sometimes hundreds of tiny empty canisters of nitrous oxide in parking lots, mainly near nightclubs.

"It's pretty popular with the kids. The stuff is easy to get," detective Paul Restivo of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office narcotics division said. "It's a quick high."

A Mandarin Winn-Dixie supermarket manager who kept finding used-up Reddi-Whip cans scattered about his store many mornings finally decided last month to temporarily pull the product from his dairy case.

Employees who answered the phone at the store at San Jose Boulevard and Loretto Road said the whipped cream cans had been found opened and put back on the shelf, hidden, or thrown out.

"There was some suspicious activity going on," said Mickey Clerc, Winn-Dixie corporate spokesman.

It was likely huffing, Lt. John Hartley of the police narcotics division said. "There's no doubt in my mind that is what was happening."

Officials with other area supermarkets said they haven't had a problem with huffing and have not removed products from shelves because of it.

Nationwide, although nitrous oxide is popular, kids also are sniffing air freshener, butane, refrigerant, cooking spray, deodorant, gasoline, glue, typewriter correction fluid and hundreds of other household products, said Harvey Weiss, executive director of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition in Austin, Texas.

Locally, police said they suspect teens are resorting to using whipped cream cans from supermarket dairy cases because 40,000 nitrous oxide canisters were recently confiscated from the street. Youn Yang, 40, was arrested March 26 and charged with selling 12,000 nitrous oxide canisters for $1 apiece at the Best Choice convenience store on Stockton Street, according to police.

Nitrous oxide comes in silvery pink canisters, about the size of a cigarette lighter, and can be purchased in any kitchen appliance store for use in whipped cream cans or coffee cream canisters.

One canister is enough for two or three people to get high, Hartley said.

Because nitrous oxide and the other chemicals are legal substances, police said they must prove they were bought or sold for inhaling purposes -- a misdemeanor offense.

How to regulate it is equally difficult, police said.

"If you put whipped cream behind the supermarket counter, pretty soon you'd have to put everything behind the counter," detective Restivo said. …