Volatile Solvent Use among Western Australian Adolescents

By Carroll, Annemaree; Houghton, Stephen et al. | Adolescence, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Volatile Solvent Use among Western Australian Adolescents


Carroll, Annemaree, Houghton, Stephen, Odgers, Peta, Adolescence


Volatile solvent use (VSU), also referred to as glue sniffing, inhalant abuse, or solvent abuse, has been defined as "the deliberate inhalation of a gas or fumes given off from a substance at room temperature for its intoxicating effect" (National Drug Abuse Information Centre, 1988). Much has been written about its practice, prevalence, and chemical toxicology (Ramsey, Anderson, Bloor, & Flannagan, 1989); chronic neurological toxicity (Lolin, 1989); neuropsychological consequences (Chadwick & Anderson, 1989); relationship to school examination attainments (Chadwick, Yule, & Anderson, 1990) and delinquency (Jacobs & Ghodse, 1988); function in the social dynamics of solvent-using groups (Houghton, 1998); and association with drugs that are injected (Schutz, Howard, Chilcoat, & Anthony, 1994) and sudden death (Shepherd, 1989).

VSU is generally confined to those between the ages of 10 and 16 years, with most use occurring around 12 to 14. According to Chalmers (1991), volatile substances inhaled for their intoxicating effects include petrol (gasoline), anesthetic gases, volatile nitrites, organic solvents in an array of household and commercial products, aerosols, fire extinguisher chemicals, and natural gases. Recently, the inhalation of chrome paint by adolescents has been reported (Houghton, 1998).

Volatile solvents belong to the category of psychoactive drugs, which are central nervous system depressants (Alcohol and Drug Authority of Western Australia, 1993). They are chemical compounds with the capacity to change rapidly from a liquid or a semisolid state to a gas when exposed to air. According to Hartman (1988), the common characteristics of solvents, which have implications for users, are: they pass through the body intact; they have an affinity for fat, especially nerve tissue; they are soluble in blood; and they pass rapidly through tissue.

Volatile solvent users can be classified as either experimental, recreational, or habitual (Langa, 1993). Experimental users may try it once or twice to see what it is like, maybe out of curiosity or a wish to imitate friends, or often as a result of an inability to withstand peer pressure. Recreational use is frequently a group practice, with groups often containing all three types of users. Habitual users continue because they find the experience pleasurable, but it may also be a way of dealing with stress or avoiding difficult relationships. They are often characterized by school absenteeism, trouble with the police (i.e., stealing to support the habit), and a family history of alcohol or other drug problems.

In Australia, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the prevalence of solvent use. For example, the Commonwealth Department of Human Services and Health (1994) reported that approximately 25% of high school students in New South Wales and Victoria had at some time "deliberately sniffed or inhaled from spray cans, glue, petrol or thinners"; in the month prior to the survey, 8% had engaged in this practice. In Perth, Western Australia, Odgers, Houghton, and Douglas (1997) conducted a survey of drug use among 1,400 high school students and found that approximately 6% had used inhalants, with just less than 3% being current users.

Rose, Daly, and Midford (1992) collected data from Perth youth, aged 10 to 19 years, identified as at risk for VSU. Few were attending school at the time of the survey. Twenty-one different volatile substances had been tried, with "Kwikgrip" (glue) being the most preferred substance. Sixty-six percent used volatile substances with friends outdoors (e.g., behind bushes, on the street, and in parks), with the preferred method being to inhale the substance from a bag. The main differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal users were the frequency and length of use. Thirty-eight percent of Aboriginal users were found to inhale volatile solvents on a daily basis, as compared with 23% of non-Aboriginal users. …

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