Pubdate: Sun, 07 Mar 1999
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 1999 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas


MEDIA, Pa. - Five best friends gather to make a high school health
video about the dangers of smoking and drugs. Ten days later, the
girls are killed  when their car plows into a utility pole. In the
bloodstreams of four, including the driver, are traces of a chemical
named difluoroethane.

Inside the crumpled car, troopers find a can of "Duster II," a spray
used to clean computer keyboards. Its ingredients include

The coroner's findings put the teens on a list of 240 people who have
died from "huffing" inhalants since 1996, according to the National
Inhalant Prevention Coalition.

The parents of the girls remain stunned. They recently released a
statement disputing the findings and suggesting that their daughters
might have inhaled "the airborne agent" unintentionally.

But studies and doctors who treat teen-agers say their subjects tell
them that huffing, also called "sniffing" or "wanging," is the easiest
high to get and far easier to conceal than the rush from alcohol,
marijuana or tobacco.

It's cheap. It's intense. There are no dealers, no pipes, no needles,
no track marks. Some teens paint their fingernails with typewriter
correction fluid then sniff their fingers all day. Some soak their
sleeves in solvent and sniff away, with no one the wiser.

Wade Heiss' preferred means was sniffing air freshener in the back
room of his house in Bakersfield, Calif. Two days before Christmas
1995, his older brother caught him in the act. Wade was startled.
Moments later, he fell to the floor. His heart had stopped.

Wade was dead at age 12.

"Yeah, I heard about this huffing," says Dr. Richard Heiss, Wade's
father, a family practitioner. "But even I didn't know the effects of
it, and I'm a medical doctor. Nobody's telling parents about it. Why
isn't someone screaming and yelling about this?"

Studies rank huffing fourth among all forms of substance abuse by
teens. And  what many teens and parents don't realize is that huffing
can kill, even the  first time, says Harvey Weiss, founder of the
National Inhalant Prevention Coalition in Austin.

More than 1,000 products containing "euphoriant" inhalants are widely
available, including vegetable cooking spray and deodorant, Weiss
says, and the number of easy-to-get chemicals to sniff is growing and
changing with time.

"I call it a silent epidemic," Weiss says. "Right now, there's barely
any public awareness out there. And in the young person's mind, how
can they think this is dangerous if they're not told? They think it's
just household stuff."

Most inhalants produce their effects by depressing the central nervous
system and slowing the heart, sometimes to an irregular beat. If a
user becomes anxious or frightened, the resultant adrenaline release
can kick the heart into  even more inefficient rhythms, to the point
that blood and oxygen no longer  reach the brain.

"In a few minutes, someone who seems to be doing fine can be dead,"
says Earl Siegel, a Cincinnati pharmacist with expertise in inhalant
abuse. "People are unfamiliar with how dangerous and prevalent it is."

A federal study of users age 12 through adulthood estimated that new
users of inhalants in 1997 had increased to 805,000, from 380,000 in
1991. The study, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, said

most new users were aged 12-17.

According to Weiss, seventh-and eighth-graders are the most common
users among all teens.

The study called for a broad educational push to cut into those
numbers. Congress is considering a bill to designate the week of March
22 as National Inhalants and Poisons Awareness Week. And SC Johnson,
whose Glade air freshener has been an object of inhalant abuse, in
October joined with Deloris Jordan, mother of basketball star Michael
Jordan, in a campaign to increase awareness. It distributes
educational videos to schools, hospitals, drug counselors and  social

Delaware County coroner Dimitri Contostavlos said he hoped to raise
awareness by releasing toxicology reports on the girls killed in the
Jan. 29 car accident.

Loren Wells, Rebecca Weirich and Shaena Grigaitis, all 16; and Tracy
Graham and Rachael Lehr, both 17 - juniors at a high school 10 miles
outside of Philadelphia - were returning from shopping for prom
dresses when their car swerved out of control. The posted speed limit
on the twisty, half-mile stretch of road that locals call "Dead Man's
Curve" because of numerous accidents is 55  mph. Investigators say the
teens' car, driven by Wells, was traveling at 66- 88  mph when it hit
the pole.

The can of "Duster II" was found in the car two days

"No one ever suspected these girls," Trooper Joseph McCunney

"I think this might finally shake a few teen-agers' trees and make
them afraid about it. There's nothing more final than death," says Dr.
Anthony Acquavella, director of adolescent medicine at St.
Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

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