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Solvent Abuse Deadlier than Ecstasy
date: 24-March-2005
editorial comment editorial comment
Hum....Time to go to the bathroom then....

Life - Imagine a drug that can, potentially, be as dangerous as heroin and cocaine. Imagine that drug being legal. Now imagine that 10% of 14 to 18 year olds are, or have, misused this drug and that one-person dies every week in the United Kingdom alone due to the effects of abusing this drug.

These are not street drugs, the average home has 30 kitchen and bathroom products that can be abused, and it is the very fact that all of these substances are legal and have legitimate uses that allows abuser to maintain that they are doing little wrong. Glue sniffing and solvent abuse therefore refers to the deliberate inhalation of volatile solvents.

Types of solvents

The important thing to remember is that not all of those who are victims of solvent abuse sniff glue and petrol. That stereotype is long gone. Instead victims are turning to a wide array of things including butane gas cigarette lighter refills, liquefied domestic gas, solvent based adhesives, deodorant aerosols, pain relief sprays, aerosol air fresheners, hairspray, other aerosols, some typewriter correction fluids, certain paints, paint thinners & removers, dry cleaning agents, petrol lighter fuel, nail varnish & varnish remover, some shoe & metal polish, and plaster remover.

The increase in the young

One third of young people that die from Volatile Solvent Abuse are first-time solvent abusers, and in 37% of deaths in 1997 there was no prior known history of abuse. Young people remain the group most associated with solvent abuse - between 1971 and 2000, most deaths from VSA occurred in the 14-18-age range. Furthermore, the important thing to remember is that solvent abuse can occur in both males and females. Although males tend to be more at risk from death probably due to differences in inhalation and sniffing.

Damaging effects

As mentioned solvent abuse is both damaging to long-term health and potentially fatal. Seven times deadlier than ecstasy, inhalation also produces inebriation, confusion, stupor and unconsciousness - deaths usually occur from suffocation whilst unconscious, or choking on vomit. Those who continue and develop a degree of dependency and long-term use can be damage their internal organs seriously. The lungs and the liver are the two organs that are most at risk of disease although damage can also be caused to the peripheral nerves, kidney brain and heart. A further issue is the problem that solvent abuse may lead dependents to follow onto the harder classified A drugs such as heroin, those who already have social or psychological problems will be most at risk of this.

Legislation and problems

Despite such damaging effects, legislation of solvents remains a problem. In the United Kingdom it is illegal for a person to sell a solvent to anyone under the age of 18 years of age if it is known that deliberate inhalation will occur (Under the Substances Supply Act 1985) It is also illegal to sell Cigarette Lighter Refill fuel to anyone under 18 (under the Safety) Regulations 1999). However, an obvious complexity is how can a shopkeeper know whether the product will be deliberately inhaled, unless the user has a label levitating over their head proclaiming the fact, or the shopkeeper personally knows the user, it is often hard to ascertain. Therefore prejudice and discrimination often results as all under 18s are refused sale. Similar legislation occurs across the world including Australia.

Further complexities are also complicating the fight against solvent misuse. An important method of targeting shops that sell solvents to underage children, no questions asked, is to send children to buy from the shop. Conflict exists though under United Kingdom law. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland trading officers to send children to target shops. In Scotland however this practice is prohibited, hampering the fight against solvent misuse. Warren Hawksley, director of the solvent abuse charity Re-solv, has warned that Scotland especially has a "particular problem" with volatile substance abuse, particularly among under 18s.

"The law is that it's illegal to sell cigarette lighter refills to anyone under 18," he said.

"In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, trading standards officers can send in underage children to test the system - in Scotland, you cannot.

"We feel it's very important that trading standards officers don't have to fight the battle with their hands tied behind their backs."

Preventing young people from getting involved in solvent misuse is complex. For educators, formal and informal, drugs and solvent abuse are complicated issues. Parents, teachers and youth workers want young people to be better informed so that they don't become drug or solvent users although often this may involve a heavy dont do it. With most victims being the rebellious teenager though by openly discussing drug and solvent abuse with young people in such a way, we may encourage them to try it. Nevertheless, for solvents there are some potent arguments in favour of such a campaign. It is dangerous, and death from solvent abuse represents a significant proportion of the total number of deaths amongst young people every year. Unlike other drugs there is no known safe dose or safe method of use. If these points are reinforced in a youngsters mind, then hopefully further prevention will become a possibility.

In conclusion then, volatile substance abuse is a growing problem, one that has grown since the 1980s epidemic. It is about time that this issue was dealt with in a safe and clear manner. The legislation brought in by the British government was initially promising but is now proving to be ineffective. Sustainable strategies such as education are the way forward. Moreover, if you suspect someone you care about is abusing solvents then approach with caution. Remember the signs and symptoms including slurred speech, lack of concentration and blurred vision. Dont show anger but DO try and get help, try many of the charities and help lines around worldwide. If anger is shown towards the potential abuser conflict will only result but if a joint, calm effort is made you may prevent this loved one from suffering a fatal accident.

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