Inhalant Abuse Can Have Lethal Consequences
On Feb. 18, 2002, Justin Zuber was found unconscious on the bathroom floor of his dorm room at a Philadelphia boarding school, a plastic bag around his head, a can of air freshener nearby. The last breath the 16-year-old from Mitchellville, Md. drew was from an inhalant.
Janna Zuber described her son as “zany”; quick to make friends, smart, and a voracious reader, proud to stump his parents on a wide range of subjects. An honor roll student, Justin was “incredibly passionate,” his mother said, and felt compelled to visit New York City shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
“He was such a character,” said Mrs. Zuber. “Anyone who met or talked with Justin, even if briefly, never forgot him.”
How did this tragedy—death from an inhalant—happen to such a bright young man?
“Justin liked fun things, and I don’t think he realized the grave risk associated with what he was doing,” said Mrs. Zuber. “This is where parental responsibility to educate becomes apparent.”
Helen Reines, R.N., executive director of Pathways, the Anne Arundel Health System alcohol and drug treatment center, agrees. “Children in middle school are naturally inquisitive, and many may be under the misconception that if it’s in the house, it’s not dangerous. They can abuse inhalants found in just about every room of the house. It’s an easily accessible high, and can often come down to just plain curiosity.”
Inhalant abuse often begins early in children curious to experiment with substances they consider harmless. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more 8th-graders have tried inhalants than any illicit drug, including marijuana, and one of every five eighth graders will try an inhalant. Many are unaware these items are potentially fatal and highly addictive.
The danger with inhalants, Reines said, is that they can kill—easily. Asphyxiation can occur when inhaled fumes displace oxygen in the lungs, causing seizures, coma, and a condition called “sudden sniffing death,” which occurs when inhalants induce irregular and rapid heart rhythms, leading to heart failure. Inhalants also can result in irreversible damage to the brain and nervous system.
“The solution is in parents setting good examples for their children, and in the education of the dangers associated with inhalants,” said Mrs. Zuber, who now is dedicated to participating in organizations devoted to preventing inhalant abuse. “Parents discussing this issue with their children has been shown to dramatically reduce the likelihood of their children experimenting. Justin did not know about the danger involved with inhalant abuse, because we did not know to warn him. We would like for every child to have the chance to make the right decision.”
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