Partnership, doctor warn of teen inhalant abuse
Dr. Angela Wong, who attends to children at Mesa Pediatrics in Ahwatukee Foothills, is part of a group trying to warn parents about the danger posed to children by household chemicals. (Lauren Vasquez/AFN)

This week, Arizona's Chapter for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America is making an extra effort to help parents identify one of the most readily-available deadly drugs for teens: household chemicals that can be inhaled for a quick high, collectively called inhalants. Dr. Angela Wong is a pediatrician with Mesa Pediatrics in Ahwatukee Foothills. She acts as an ambassador for the organization spearheading the awareness campaign that runs through March 25, called National Inhalants Awareness Week. "We're all just trying to get the word out about this drug abuse," she said. Dr. Wong pointed out that most parents are aware that products around the home - items like paint, gasoline, aerosol air freshener, even pesticide - can be used to gain a quick, virtually impossible-to-detect high, but many do not realize how many kids are doing it, or worse, how deadly it can be. "Some of the statistics out there are shocking," Wong said. According to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, one in every five teens in the U.S. has abused an inhalant - that's 20 percent of teens who have tried "huffing," while only 5 percent of parents believe their child has ever abused these potentially fatal household items. "Inhalants have been around forever, but now kids are getting more creative and more curious," Wong said. The local pediatrician noted that eighth- and ninth-graders tend to be the most curious about this method of catching a quick buzz. In fact, Arizona eighth-graders ranked the highest in the nation for inhalant abuse. This statistic has prompted the drug awareness organization to launch the awareness campaign for teens as well as parents. In the partnership's new 30-second TV spot, teenage boys are shown in the park and viewers are given clues the young men have just been "huffing." The kids are laughing at each other until one of the boys falls to ground, unconscious. The partnership admits it's a grim PSA aimed at parents, but that it depicts a situation that is all too common. "Teens can die doing this just one time," warned Wong. "Kids are using a new technique called 'bagging,' where they actually put a plastic bag over their head after spraying the chemicals in to it. The high can often cause someone to pass out and even vomit, and they have a high risk of asphyxiating. It is serious and it is instant." Short-term damage from this abuse includes hearing loss and limb spasms, and long-term effects can include bone marrow damage, short-term memory loss and liver and kidney damage. Wong noted that what makes this type of drug abuse even more dangerous is how hard it can be to detect. "It's really hard to catch them," she said. "It doesn't stay in the system and the high is very short." Signs of use can include paint stains on the face, body or clothes, unusual or chemical odor on the breath, slurred or disoriented speech, irritability or restlessness, red nose, runny eyes and nausea or loss of appetite. Parents should also look for commonly abused household items in their child's room like glue, Freon, gasoline, nail polish remover and lighter fluid. "It's just so scary that these kids are intentionally putting these poisonous materials in to their bodies," Wong said. "They have drives to collect empty aerosol cans, and when Poison Control comes to pick them up, they have the full bunny suit and masks on, and I think if the kids could just see this, see how dangerous these materials are - you can't even throw them in the garbage." Wong reiterated that Arizona has the highest rate of teens who have tried inhalants, and that the best prevention is still the simple tactic of talking to teens. "[The Partnership for a Drug-Free America] has shown that you can make a 50 percent decrease in the chance your kids will try drugs by just talking to them about it," she said. "It's so hard to know for sure if they would try it, so it's better to just warn them."

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