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Teens and Nitrous Oxide Abuse

July 23, 2009 by Emily Battaglia 

Recent surveys have shown that use of nitrous oxide surpasses use of marijuana among middle-school students in some areas of the country.A survey conducted in 2008 by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found 12- and 13-year-olds were more likely to have used inhalants than marijuana and prescription drugs.

Similarly, approximately 17 percent of seventh-graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District reported abusing inhalants, according to the 2007 California Healthy Kids Survey. This rate was more than twice the statewide average of 8 percent. By comparison, only 14 percent of the Los Angeles students said they had used marijuana.

About Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide is classified as an inhalant. Inhalants are toxic gases that are found in common household products. Aside from products containing nitrous oxide, other common inhalants used to get high include rubber cement, paint thinner, nail polish remover, gasoline, correction fluids and bleach. Experts have identified approximately 1,400 of these products that are prone to abuse. Many of these products have no odor, which makes use or abuse difficult to immediately detect.

One of the most common ways that teens abuse nitrous oxide is by inhaling the contents of small gas containers known as whippets. These containers, which resemble mini helium canisters, are marketed to allow individuals to whip cream at home.

Amidst recent reports of whippet abuse at area middle schools, one L.A. parent was shocked when she saw an ice cream truck selling whippets to a middle school student right in front of the school. She and other parents began questioning the need for whippets to be commercially available at all, after learning that nitrous oxide canisters were also being sold at local gas stations and mom-and-pop stores for 50 cents each. In response to the alarming trend of nitrous oxide abuse among area middle schoolers, those concerned parents formed the Boyle Heights Coalition for a Safe and Drug Free Community.

California assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D) responded to reports from schools and law enforcement of increasing whippet incidents by introducing legislation that would prohibit the sale or distribution of nitrous oxide, including whippets, to anyone under 18. The bill, AB 1015, has passed the Senate Public Safety Committee and is slated for a floor vote in August.

Assemblyman Torlakson commented on finding out about the frightening trend among teens in his district: “I was surprised to learn that so large a number of kids were experimenting with these substances where potentially one use can result in death and the brain damage is irreversible. … It’s a cheap high and considered cool. The law will help by prohibiting sales but also focusing attention on the problem and creating debate and awareness.”

Teen inhalant abuse isn’t confined to California. According to SAMHSA’s 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), almost one million teens used inhalants during the year, and approximately 17.2 percent of youth who initiated drug use during the year reported that inhalants were the first drug they used.

One piece of good news, however, is that the NSDUH found that nitrous oxide or whippet use among youth nationwide declined between 2002 and 2007 for both males (40.2 percent to 20.2 percent) and females (22.3 percent to 12.2 percent). 

Signs of Inhalant Abuse

According to substance abuse experts, parents should be on the lookout for some typical signs of inhalant abuse. These may include:

-chemical odors on breath or clothing;

-paint or other stains on face, hands or clothes;

-hidden empty spray paint or solvent containers and chemical-soaked rags or clothing;

-drunk or disoriented appearance;

-slurred speech;

-nausea or loss of appetite;

-inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability, and depression; and

-missing household items.

Consequences of Inhalant Abuse

The consequences of inhalant abuse can be severe and sometimes fatal, even on the first try. Short-term effects of inhalant use include heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, dizziness, headaches and sometimes death. Long-term effects may include depression and permanent damage to the brain, nerves, heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. Users of inhalants are known to suffer convulsions and seizures, suffocation, choking, coma and fatal injuries from accidents while high.

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