The cheap high known as "huffing" is back in the news, cited in the crash that killed three Girl Scouts and an adult on a Wisconsin road Saturday, but drug abuse specialists say it has been a persistent problem that has caused other tragedies — and untold close calls — in recent years.
Inhaling toxic vapors, whether from glue, compressed air, or gasoline, creates an instant high that numbs people and dulls their awareness, said Dr. Joseph Lee of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation treatment program. That makes addicts dangerous drivers, he said.
"For every one like this, there's dozens, if not hundreds, of near-misses," Lee said in an interview following the weekend tragedy.
A Health Department student survey in 2016 found that 2 percent of Minnesota fifth-graders had tried huffing in the previous year, along with 1 percent of 8th- and 11th-graders.
But Lee said the practice goes beyond kids experimenting with household supplies. Users include college students seeking to get high without buying illicit drugs, nightclubbers who believe inhaled nitrites improve sexual performance and addicts who lose touch with reality and suffer brain damage.
Temptation is everywhere, he added. "Imagine if you're trying to be sober and you go to Target, and there's temptation right in front of you."
Huffing produces a short-term high, so addicts might do it continuously, even while driving, Lee said, but its damage to the brain lingers.
Compressed-air cleaners, known as "air dusters," have been implicated in last weekend's crash and in the deaths of three men on a western Wisconsin road last year. The brother of one of them, Clay Kendhammer of Rosemount, persuaded Minnesota lawmakers to add 1-difluoroethane (DFE) to the list of intoxicants that can result in drunken driving convictions. DFE is often found in compressed-air cans.
Lawmakers also were motivated by a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling last fall that reversed an impaired driving conviction because DFE wasn't among the listed substances that could make drivers criminally liable.
Kendhammer now wants retailers to make huffing supplies harder to obtain.
Prevention is critical, Lee said, because huffing is difficult to treat due of the ease of access and the damage it inflicts on the brain.
"They're in a fog," he said of patients treated for huffing addictions. "They don't think straight. Their reasoning and logic is not what it would be at baseline. It's harder to get them to enhance their motivation and have a wise perspective."