- MEDIA, Pa. - Five best friends get together to make a high school
health video about the hazards of smoking and drugs. Ten days later, the
girls are killed when their car slams into a utility pole. Four of them,
including the driver, have traces of a chemical named difluoroethane in
- Inside the crumpled car, troopers find
a can of Duster II, a spray used to clean computer keyboards. Its ingredients
- The coroner's findings put the teens
on a list of 240 people who have died from "huffing" inhalants
since 1996, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition.
- The parents of the girls remain stunned.
Last week, they released a statement disputing the findings and suggesting
their daughters might have inhaled "the airborne agent" unintentionally.
- But studies and doctors who treat teenagers
say their subjects tell them that huffing, also called "sniffing"
or "wanging," is the easiest high to get and far easier to conceal
than the rush from alcohol, marijuana or tobacco.
- It's cheap. It's intense. There are no
dealers, no pipes, no needles, no track marks. Some teens paint their
fingernails with typewriter correction fluid then sniff their fingers
all day. Some soak their sleeves in solvent and sniff away, with no one
- Wade Heiss' preferred means was sniffing
air freshener in the back room of his house in Bakersfield, Calif. Two
days before Christmas 1995, his older brother caught him in the act. Wade
was startled. Moments later, he fell to the floor. His heart had stopped.
- Wade was dead at age 12.
- "Yeah, I heard about this huffing,"
says Dr. Richard Heiss, Wade's father, a family practitioner. "But
even I didn't know the effects of it, and I'm a medical doctor. Nobody's
telling parents about it. Why isn't someone screaming and yelling about
- Studies rank huffing fourth among all
forms of substance abuse by teens. And what many teens and parents don't
realize is that huffing can kill, even the first time, says Harvey Weiss,
founder of the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition in Austin, Texas.
- More than 1,000 products containing "euphoriant"
inhalants are widely available, including vegetable cooking spray and
deodorant, Weiss says, and the number of easy-to-get chemicals to sniff
is growing and changing with time.
- "I call it a silent epidemic,"
Weiss says. "Right now, there's barely any public awareness out there.
And in the young person's mind, how can they think this is dangerous if
they're not told? They think it's just household stuff."
- Most inhalants produce their effects
by depressing the central nervous system and slowing the heart, sometimes
to an irregular beat. If a user becomes anxious or frightened, the resultant
adrenaline release can kick the heart into even more inefficient rhythms,
to the point that blood and oxygen no longer reach the brain.
- "In a few minutes, someone who seems
to be doing fine can be dead," says Earl Siegel, a Cincinnati pharmacist
with expertise in inhalant abuse. "People are unfamiliar with how
dangerous and prevalent it is."
- A federal study of users age 12 through
adulthood estimated that new users of inhalants in 1997 had increased
to 805,000, from 380,000 in 1991. The study, by the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration of the Department of Health and
Human Services, said most new users were aged 12-17.
- According to Weiss, seventh- and eighth-graders
are the most common users among all teens.
- The study called for a broad educational
push to cut into those numbers. Congress is considering a bill to designate
the week of March 22 as National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week.
And SC Johnson, whose Glade air freshener has been an object of inhalant
abuse, in October joined with Deloris Jordan, mother of basketball star
Michael Jordan, in a campaign to increase awareness. It distributes educational
videos to schools, hospitals, drug counselors and social workers.
- Delaware County coroner Dimitri Contostavlos
said he hoped to raise awareness by releasing toxicology reports on the
girls killed in the Jan. 29 car accident.
- Loren Wells, Rebecca Weirich and Shaena
Grigaitis, all 16; and Tracy Graham and Rachael Lehr, both 17 - juniors
at a high school 10 miles outside of Philadelphia - were returning from
shopping for prom dresses when their car swerved out of control. The posted
speed limit on the twisty, half-mile stretch of road that locals call
"Dead Man's Curve" because of numerous accidents is 55 mph.
Investigators say the teens' car, driven by Miss Wells, was traveling
at 66-88 mph when it hit the pole.
- The can of "Duster II" was
found in the car two days later.
- "No one ever suspected these girls
(of inhalant abuse)," Trooper Joseph McCunney says.
- "I think this might finally shake
a few teenagers' trees and make them afraid about it. There's nothing
more final than death," says Dr. Anthony Acquavella, director of
adolescent medicine at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
- He recounts talking with teens who have
sworn they didn't abuse inhalants even as Wite-Out pens, for correcting
typewritten errors, fell out of their pockets.
- "Why would anyone need Wite-Out
these days?" he asks. "No one has typewriters at home anymore."