Getting a handle on Huffing
ENFIELD - Somewhere in Enfield not so long ago, a middle school girl was inhaling propellants from an entire can of hairspray every night until the chemicals caused her to pass out until the next morning. John F. Kennedy Middle School police Officer Mark Rochette said the girl admitted to her bedtime ritual during a six-month investigation that found more than four dozen middle school students regularly engage in "huffing" - or inhaling propellants from aerosol products to get high. But huffing problems aren't limited to Enfield, or middle-schoolers. According to national studies from 2001 and 2003, 12 percent to 17 percent of students in grades 8 through 12 admitted to using such aerosol inhalants. Teens use them because they are cheap and available: such inhalants ranked fourth in popularity with teens behind alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, with junior high-schoolers the most frequent abusers. Rochette detailed the dangers of huffing as well as the abuse of over-the-counter medicine - also a problem at the middle school - during an hourlong forum Thursday at the Enfield Youth Center at the Angelo Lamagna family center on North Main Street. The forum had been announced for several weeks through fliers and newspaper articles, but only one parent showed up to get more information on the growing drug problem. Resident Emelia Salas has twin 10-year-old boys who will attend John F. Kennedy in less than two years. "Right now I'm on superalert because I've got all these things in my house," she said Thursday. "I knew very little about this." Salas - who heard about the forum through the youth center, where her kids go after school - said she wants to learn all she can about the pressures facing today's teens. "Nobody ever said it was easy raising children or teenagers," she said. "There's so much exposure out there. You want to be ahead of the situation." Salas said she keeps a close eye on her sons' activities and doesn't allow them to be in their bedroom behind closed doors. She said her sons often complain when she goes through their rooms. But if that's what it takes to keep them safe, she'll continue to do it. Rochette said he was disappointed in the poor turnout for the forum, but that it was not unexpected. "You can't get parents to show up for anything,' he said. "Every parent thinks it's going to be someone else's kids." Youth center coordinator Christie Amsden, who spearheaded the effort for Thursday's presentation, said she and Rochette are working to possibly hold a similar forum at a public library during summer in hopes of attracting more people from different parts of town. Amsden said she also was hoping for a better turnout, but few of the youth center's monthly family events are well-attended. "Families are busy and kids have sports," she said, later emphasizing the importance of parents being informed about what their kids are doing in their spare time. Rochette said widespread huffing and the abuse of over-the-counter medications first became evident at the middle school about six months ago during an investigation into students using marijuana. Dozens of students have since come forward to admit that they abuse household products, or have turned in their friends. In April, JFK Principal Timothy Neville banned all aerosol products from school grounds, and Rochette said he has not heard of a single huffing incident at the school since. Students at all Enfield public schools are also not allowed to carry any type of medication, whether it be allergy pills or cough drops. All medication must be administered through the school nurse, a policy that has been in place for more than a decade. Rochette said the most common ways to abuse aerosol products are to breathe the propellants out of a bag or soda can, or to soak paper towels or hair "scrunchies" - fabric-covered hair elastics - with the product, then stuff it in their mouths to breathe in the vapors. Commonly abused products are hairsprays, air fresheners, deodorants, and spray paint. Another method, known as "bagging," also is on the rise, Rochette said. Teens are sealing plastic or paper bags around their heads and breathing all the air until just before the point of suffocation. The teens or their friends then spray in the aerosol product in to the bag, and teens breathe the vapors to get high. Huffing can cause brain, liver, and kidney damage - and even death. When a person inhales propellants, the chemicals encapsulate the oxygen in the bloodstream, preventing it from reaching vital organs. Rochette likened the effects of huffing on the body to drowning. "Sudden sniffing death" can occur, even during the first huffing incident, if a surge of adrenaline causes the oxygen-starved heart to fail, sending the person into immediate cardiac arrest. Signs of inhalant abuse include sores around the mouth, red and runny eyes and nose, anxiety, dazed appearance, hallucinations, bad breath, and loss of appetite. The recommended treatment for abusing inhalants is 30 to 45 days of detoxification, Rochette said, adding that the nearest detox center for inhalant abuse is in Vermont. Abusing cough and cold medication is also popular among the middle school set. Abusers take up to 24 pills at a time, often known as "doing squares," Rochette said, to get high from stimulants in some over-the-counter products. Others go after the alcohol-based medications. Three JFK girls were taken by ambulance last month to the Connecticut Children's Medical Center after overdosing on a common cough and cold medication. Rochette said one girl with no history of seizure activity suffered a grand mal seizure as an effect of the medication. Rochette said police are working to possibly charge the three girls with criminal misdemeanor chargers, though he declined to say what those charges might be. "This stuff is scary," Rochette said, adding that many parents have the same reaction upon finding out their kids have experimented with huffing or over-the-counter medication. "They all said, 'We never thought our kid would do it.'"