Inhaling of Compressed Air Causing More Deaths in Washington State

Small but significant numbers of people will die after consuming one of the makeshift drugs known as inhalants, according to recent findings from a group of American researchers. Inhalants are a broad range of household and industrial substances capable of producing mind-altering effects. In a study published in January 2015 in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, researchers from the Washington State Department of Health used a decade of statewide data to help determine how often inhalant consumers die. The researchers used the same collection of data to help determine the specific types of inhalant substances most commonly linked to fatal outcomes.

Inhalant Basics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse lists four major classes of inhalants: volatile solvents, gases, aerosols and nitrites. Common examples of vapor-producing volatile solvent inhalants include gasoline, paint remover, paint thinner, various forms of glue, the liquids used for dry cleaning and substances called degreasers. Common examples of inhalant gases include nitrous oxide, refrigerants, butane, chloroform, ether, propane and halothane. Common examples of aerosol inhalants include spray-based deodorants, spray-based paints, fabric sprays, cooking sprays and hair sprays. Common examples of nitrite inhalants include amyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite and cyclohexyl nitrite. Some people have a preference for particular kinds of inhalants; however, many users/abusers will consume any inhalant that’s readily available. Inhalants produce an intoxicating effect, as well as a range of additional effects that can include a confused or agitated mental state, outbursts of aggression, loss of impulse control, an apathetic mental state, impaired higher-level mental skills, impaired muscle function or coordination, sleepiness, loss of consciousness and the profoundly disoriented mental state known as delirium. When consumed in large enough amounts or in specific circumstances, inhalants can kill quite easily. Specific fatal outcomes associated with inhalant use include choking on vomit, asphyxiation, convulsions, suffocation and entry into a coma.

Who Uses/Abuses Inhalants?

Unlike other common forms of substance use, inhalant use is largely clustered in America’s young teen and preteen population. A main underlying reason for this fact is the wide household availability of various inhalant substances. A federally sponsored annual survey project called Monitoring the Future tracks the rate of inhalant use in all U.S. eighth, 10th and 12th graders. Figures compiled from this project in 2014 indicate that approximately 5 percent of all eighth graders use some sort of inhalant at least once a year. Tenth graders maintain a roughly 3 percent annual rate of inhalant use, while 12th graders maintain an annual rate of just under 2 percent. Inhalant consumption in all three grades fell by a small, statistically insignificant amount between 2013 and 2014. Long-term trends of use in all three grades are down considerably in the 2010s.

How Often Does Death Occur?

Since inhalants are a broad range of largely unrelated substances with legitimate uses, researchers and public health officials can encounter great difficulty when trying to determine how many people die from inhalant-related causes. This situation is compounded by the fact that medical examiners and coroners do not typically note inhalant fatalities in their official paperwork. In the study published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, the Washington State Department of Health researchers attempted to quantify the number of inhalant-related deaths in Washington between 2003 and 2012 by reviewing death certificates written during that timeframe and using the context provided by those certificates to isolate fatal incidents of inhalant use. The researchers concluded that 56 people died from identifiable inhalant-related causes in Washington during the timeframe under consideration. By far, the single most likely cause of inhalant-related fatality was a gas, known as difluoroethane, found in products that include refrigerants and compressed air; fully 54 percent of the identified deaths involved inhalation of this gas. The researchers concluded that three population groups have the highest chances of dying after using an inhalant substance: Caucasian Americans, adults over the age of 19 and boys/men. People who die from inhalant consumption frequently belong to all three of these high-risk groups. The study’s authors note that the number of difluoroethane-related inhalant fatalities rose substantially in Washington state during the decade under consideration.

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