Huffing Petroleum Products

“Huffing,” or the practice of inhaling the fumes from chemical products in order to get high, is on the rise among American teens. The 2004 Monitoring the Future survey indicated that inhalant abuse has recently increased among young people, especially middle school students. In the 1990s, publicity campaigns about the dangers of inhalants caused a national decline in sniffing inhalants. But as public attention turned to other drugs, the abuse of these cheap, easy-to-access substances began to grow again.

Based on crude oil, petroleum products are complex chemical compounds. Among the most widely abused inhalants are petroleum fuels like gasoline, propane, butane and kerosene. Cigarette lighters, propane grills, gasoline cans and rags soaked with petroleum-based paint thinners can be found in most American homes.

Petroleum products fall into the category of hydrocarbons, which are formed from carbon and hydrogen. These common compounds fall into this category:

  • Aliphatic hydrocarbons. This hydrocarbon class includes butane and propane, which are used commercially as lighter fluid and household fuel. Repeated use can cause immediate damage to the heart, including cardiac arrest, or “sudden sniffing death.”
  • Aromatic hydrocarbons. This group of chemical solvents encompasses fuels, certain paint thinners, some adhesives, paint removers and correction fluids. Toluene, a chemical found in these products, is quickly absorbed by the vital organs, including the brain, lungs, heart and kidneys, when its vapors are inhaled.
  • Aromatic/aliphatic compounds. Gasoline contains a combination of aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons. In addition to dangerous hydrocarbons like toluene and benzene, gasoline contains lead and other toxic additives, which increase the health risks of huffing this fuel.

What Happens When You Huff Petroleum?

Petroleum products can be inhaled in a variety of ways to get a quick, powerful rush. Vapors can be sniffed directly from a can, inhaled from a fuel-soaked cloth or inhaled from a paper bag. When you inhale petroleum fumes, the chemicals are quickly absorbed by the brain and other organs, slowing down vital functions. Sensory perceptions can be affected, and you may experience dizziness, drowsiness, hallucinations or confusion. Although the initial high may be stimulating, this response is followed by weakness, fatigue or unconsciousness.

Because the euphoric effects don’t last long, teens who huff petroleum products may inhale many times in a short period to sustain the high. This practice intensifies the harmful effects of hydrocarbons on the brain and body. Soon after sniffing gas, you may notice side effects such as:

  • Numbness
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of motor coordination
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing problems
  • An irregular heartbeat
  • Aggression
  • Poor judgment

Over time, petroleum vapors can cause permanent damage to your brain, impairing cognitive function. You might have trouble keeping up with your academic goals because of learning difficulties and memory problems. Huffing gas can also damage the liver, kidneys and heart. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the most common causes of death among people who abuse chemical inhalants include:

  1. Reactions to the toxic effects of the chemical substances
  2. Asphyxia, or suffocation, after inhaling fumes
  3. Aspiration of stomach contents after vomiting
  4. Injuries related to the use of volatile chemicals

Petroleum products are highly flammable as well as toxic. The danger of fire increases the risk of injury or accidental death among teens who huff gasoline or other fuels while smoking cigarettes or marijuana.

How Can I Detect Abuse?

Palo Alto Medical Foundation warns that your teen may be sniffing petroleum products if he displays symptoms such as:

  • Fumes on his clothes or belongings
  • Glazed or reddened eyes
  • Unpleasant “chemical” breath
  • Redness or lesions around his mouth
  • A chronically runny nose
  • Dazed, drunken behavior

The addiction specialists at Muir Wood are available to answer your questions about inhalant abuse and to give you the support you need to residential treatment program.