Despite Deaths Of Two Teens Last Year, Inhalant Abuse Among Youths Rises In Bay County
One year ago this week, a fire in a vacant home on 16th Street claimed the lives of two students in Bay City.
Jordan H. Gray, a 15-year-old student at Wenona Center Alternative High School, died in the fire. David Commire, a 14-year-old student at Central High School, died months later from burns received in the fire.
The fire occurred because the two were huffing gasoline and then lit a cigarette, engulfing them in flames, according to investigators.
The tragedy lies not just in the deaths, but in recent statistics that show that the lessons of the incident haven't taken hold.
The most recent Monitoring the Future study, a nationwide survey of substance abuse among students, found illicit drug use is down among teens, but inhalant abuse is climbing.
And a recent survey of Bay County students conducted by Western Michigan University found that more older students are continuing to abuse inhalants, going against a perception that huffing is for younger kids.
The survey also showed that Bay County youths at all levels are well above the national average for inhalant use.
Inhalants come in several categories, including aerosol propellants, gasoline or any type of solvents. Experts say there are more than 1,400 potentially abused substances readily available.
"Huffing is a really cheap high because you can use household chemicals,"
said Bay County Probate Judge Karen A. Tighe. "The general public is not aware necessarily of what the danger is.
"I think there needs to be more attention to the fact that this is highly dangerous behavior that does permanent brain damage," she added. "It doesn't take much to start you on the road to losing brain cells."
Huffing long has been an easy, if unglamorous, way to get high for youngsters, as the items are readily available.
Now, students are continuing to abuse inhalants into later grades, said Janine Kravetz, prevention coordinator for Bay Area Social Intervention Services.
The survey done by Western Michigan University in 2004 found that more 12th-graders had used inhalants than in 2002.
In 2002, 2.8 percent of Bay County students used inhalants; in 2004, the figure was 4.6 percent.
"The fact that they are hanging onto it is what concerns me," said Goldie Wood, project director for the Bay County Neighborhood Resource Center and member of the Bay County Prevention Network, both agencies that deal with drug and alcohol abuse and prevention in Bay County.
Traditionally, older substance abusers move to alcohol and marijuana, she said.
Inhalants are hard to regulate because they are so easy to get, Kravetz said.
"It's not illegal - that's what makes this so difficult," she said. "Kids don't see a spray-paint can bust; you can't arrest a kid for buying spray paint."
No state laws exist regulating the sale of the products, and possession of those chemicals isn't illegal.
However, under Michigan law, it is illegal to abuse the substances to get high.
In Bay County Juvenile Court last year, three teens were convicted under a law that forbids intoxication by intentionally inhaling chemical fumes.
"We take it very seriously and try to get those kids into counseling and substance abuse treatment," Tighe said. "It's not just an addiction, it's a developmental problem."
Many times, though, inhalant abusers aren't charged with violations of that law; rather, they find themselves in court for crimes related to their substance abuse, Tighe said.
"We see the substance abuse to be part of the behavior," she said.
Signs Of Abuse
There are several physical and behavioral signs that kids are huffing, Wood said.
Evidence of abuse includes paraphernalia lying around a room, such as empty cans, bandanas or bags, or the smell of gasoline on clothes.
Physically, abusers can have discoloration or sores around the mouth, appear light-headed or dizzy, have glossy, red or glazed-looking eyes, and exhibit significant behavior or mood changes, Wood said.
Other tell-tale signs include paint or chemical stains on clothing, or fingernails painted with typewriter correction fluid or permanent markers - some abusers do that so they can sniff fumes off their fingers.
But aside from visual signs, abusers can show a change in behavior.
Irritability, a dazed appearance and a sudden poor performance in school are just a few signs, Wood said.
Most chronic abusers are white males, although experimental use among females is common. Parental income is not a factor, Kravetz said.
If parents think their children have a problem or if someone has admitted to abusing inhalants, Kravetz and Wood recommend they talk to a substance abuse counselor.
After the deaths last May, both the Neighborhood Resource Center and BASIS were flooded with requests to do programs about huffing at area schools.
But drug counselors can't do it all, they said.
Parents need to learn the dangers of inhalants and communicate to their children about the topic, Wood said.
"The earlier (parents) start talking to their kids about drug abuse, the better," she said
"Parents have to be knowledgeable. Knowledge is prevention."
Education on the dangers of inhalants as poisons should start before school, according to Marty Doring, coordinator for health, safety and drug education for the Bay-Arenac ISD.
As soon as kids become independent, they could have access to substances that can be used as inhalants, Doring said. "Parents are the No. 1 protective factor for their kids."
Parents should teach kids the proper manner for using chemicals, Doring said - for example, washing their hands when they are through, replacing all caps and putting the chemicals away.
At the middle-school level, educational efforts can emphasize the effects of individual chemicals and the dangers of their use.
In area schools, inhalant education is part of anti-drug messages based around a philosophy of good risks versus bad risks.
"It's very important to do an educational piece on inhalants, because they are everyday things we have in our house," Doring said.
With more than 1,000 abusable products, inhalants are easy to get, which contributes to their popularity,
"They even give you the bag," said Wood, referring to the practice of kids getting high by spraying a substance into a bag to huff the fumes.
Some stores, such as retail giant Wal-Mart, have restrictions placed on some of those products.
Wal-Mart stores in the area require buyers of certain abusable products to be 18 years old, and the cashier is prompted to check identification when those items are scanned.
Age-sensitive products include strong adhesives, typewriter correction fluid and some aerosol sprays.
Wood recommends employees of other stores know what products youths are abusing. If a minor is frequently buying glue or spray cans, employees should cut that person off.
Educators and law-enforcement officials agree that it is up to everyone to help curb the practice.
"Initially, it's the parents' responsibility to educate their own children and monitor their own children to make sure they're not engaged in this behavior," Tighe said.
"Ultimately, the community needs to educate each other on those dangers. If we are a caring community, ultimately we should take care of each other.
"It's all of our responsibility," Tighe said.