Describing Isabel Burk as “a gift to Newtown,” Alice Jackson, assistant superintendent of schools, introduced the nationally known expert on health, prevention, and educational issues to a group of more than 75 adults at Reed Intermediate School Wednesday evening, February 8.
Ms Burk’s forum, “Protecting Your Children in the Vulnerable Years: The Invisible Threat of Inhalants,” was presented through a collaboration of Newtown Public Schools, Newtown Parent Connection, and the Newtown Prevention Council. Ms Burk has written extensively about inhalant abuse prevention, including the only guide used by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. She has presented her program in person in 40 states and has appeared on 20/20, CBS This Morning, and Fox News. Ms Burk is the director of The Health Network and training consultant for the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition and is the author of many resource guides for schools and drug programs.
Before presenting to the audience at Reed Intermediate, Ms Burk had spent the day working with the mental health teams and staff at Newtown High School. She met with the health teams of the middle school on Thursday, February 9.
“Usually I am sent somewhere because of a death. I am pleased to be in Newtown as a preventative program,” Ms Burk said.
Indicating a table filled with common household aerosols and cleaning agents, Ms Burk pointed out that access to inhalants was simple and legal in every house, school, store, and office in America. “I am here to tell you what your kids probably already know,” she said. “In Newtown, 11 percent of the middle school kids say they have used an inhalant. The average age of the first time user is 10 and a half years old. That is the fifth grade. It is the adults who need to know.”
The information quoted by Ms Burk came from a survey issued to Newtown students in 2005. The survey takes into account that some students will lie when answering the questions. “Some kids think it is cool to say they have used drugs,” Ms Burk said. “Other kids are afraid to tell the truth.” The survey, she believes, is accurate in the information collected because of the precautions taken to weed out inconsistencies.
With that sobering thought in mind, Ms Burk spent the next 90 minutes enlightening the crowd as to the terminology of inhalant abuse, the symptoms and the indicators of inhalant abuse of which parents should be aware. Children in Newtown, she said, most likely have heard the terms huffing, sniffing, bagging, and glading, all slang for inhalant abuse. It is important for parents to know what these mean, too, she said.
“Huffing,” Ms Burk explained, is breathing fumes through the mouth. “Sniffing” is breathing fumes in through the nose and “bagging” consists of filling a plastic or paper bag with vapors and putting it over the nose, mouth, or face in order to achieve an immediate high. “Glading” takes its name from the popularity of abusing a particular name-brand air freshener.
To an adult, the effects of using inhalants do not sound attractive. Dizziness, disorientation, memory loss, impaired coordination, muscle spasm, and nausea are the most common side effects. “To a 10-year-old, though,” said Ms Burk, “this looks like fun. Remember when you used to spin until you couldn’t stand up? They think it’s the same thing.”
Elementary and middle school-age children are most likely to experiment with inhalants, according to this expert. “Children are innocent experimenters. They don’t understand the dangers.”
It is up to parents to be informed about inhalant abuse, she said, and to broach the subject with their young children in a nonaccusatory, calm manner. “Even though you are good parents, your child could make a mistake. You have to influence them before they are 10 years old in Newtown,” she emphasized. “Two out of three 12-year-olds know a user of inhalants. Don’t be afraid to talk about this issue. By not talking, you are not addressing something kids know about.”
Aside from the natural curiosity of this age group, the main reason children experiment with inhalants is availability, Ms Burk said. It is not illegal for a child to purchase air fresheners, aerosol deodorants, cleaning fluids, and butane lighters, nor is it hard for them to gain access to them in their everyday life. Bug repellants, furniture polish, floor cleaner, canned whipping cream, and nail polish can be found in any home. “When used as they are intended, they are not harmful. But kids know ways to use them that are not as they are intended, and they are toxic,” warned Ms Burk.
Some inhalants are notoriously abused and should not be kept in the house, she said. “If you have rubber cement in the house, throw it out. If you have Glade in the house, throw it out. If you have a computer cleaner that is made of inert gases, throw it out,” she recommended. The newest fad among older abusers is that of sniffing computer cleaners while driving and she noted that “more than 100 crashes have been attributed to sniffing and driving since 1999. Isn’t that scary?”
Sniffing can contribute to something called sudden sniffing death. “The body’s own adrenaline kills the person,” said Ms Burk. “They go into cardiac arrest. The autopsy will only show that the heart stopped.”
There is no amount of inhalant that is without danger. The first experiment can be the last experiment for an abuser, she went on to say. “All inhalants are dangerous. Number one, when your child sniffs, they are denying their body oxygen. Number two, every product is toxic and dangerous to the brain.” Every use of inhalants causes damage to brain cells and neurons, decreased circulatory oxygen and depressed central nervous system functions, all of which can be chronic effects and contribute to fatalities.
Nitrous oxide, found in aerosol whipped cream and whipped cream chargers (“whippets”), is the real fear for high school and college kids, among whom it is most popular for a quick high, Ms Burk said. Nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas” is truly no laughing matter, she explained. “Nitrous oxide is an anesthetic. It is very dangerous.”
The first line of defense parents need against inhalant abuse, is to know what to look for, Ms Burk said. Parents need to be alert to clues such as large quantities of a product in a child’s room; paint or chemically stained bags; empty product containers and aerosol cans with the tops loosened. “Don’t be afraid to look around your child’s room. When you are cleaning up, putting away, be aware of what is in the room. You are not snooping if you are doing something that might save a life.”
Other signs of inhalant abuse include watery, glassy eyes; severe headaches; a persistent rash on the face; a chemical odor on a child’s breath; or stains on their face, nails, and clothes. These physical signs can also be symptoms of innocent allergic reactions, teenage acne and illness, though, so it is the physical evidence of inhalant paraphernalia that parents must learn to recognize.
Paper towel holders stuffed with used paper towels in the garbage can indicate inhalant abuse. Plastic bags filled with opened permanent markers or cloths and bags stained with unidentified solutions should raise a red flag. Make sure that soda cans contain soda, she said, and are not standing in as housing for dangerous, toxic vapors. Large quantities of aerosol or vaporous products in a child’s room can indicate abuse and the presence of excess product needs to be questioned.
It is, however, important to not directly accuse a child suspected of abusing inhalants, she said. If a parent suspects a child is experimenting with toxins, the first step should be to talk to a professional. “Then go back and talk to the child,” she said. “Use simple, sincere messages that show you’re concerned, like, ‘I’m worried and you haven’t seemed yourself.’ Or ‘I’ve learned about inhalants at this workshop. What do you know about them?'” Keeping open the lines of communication is crucial to successful intervention, she said. “Talk about it often. If it’s important, say it often. You want them to hear your voice in their head when they are faced with a choice saying, ‘Not safe! Danger!'”
There are other positive steps parents can take, besides talking often with children about the dangers of toxins. Parents should make an example of always reading labels before using a product and modeling safe behavior for using them. “Open the windows. Put on a mask. Put on the rubber gloves. Always refer to the products as poisons or toxins,” she suggested.
Reducing the number of toxins stored in the home is within parents’ control, as well. Pump sprays can be chosen over aerosol propelled items whenever possible. Cleaners containing only natural ingredients can replace many ammonia and bleach-based cleaners.
Pam Davis, owner of The Green House on South Main Street in Newtown carries three lines of household cleaners that are free of petro-chemicals, ammonia, or bleach. “They are completely pure,” she said. “You don’t need all these chemicals [in household cleaners.] The media has convinced people that the chemical smell is a clean smell. Bleach is so dangerous to the human body. The chemicals contribute to asthmas and allergies.”
The natural cleaning agents contain ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, coconut oils, orange oils, and grapefruit seed oil. Some contain vinegar and essential oils and the mineral salt, borax.
“Orange oil is a natural disinfectant,” Ms Davis said. “And [the natural cleaners] work. This is how people used to clean 100 years ago.”
Knowing where your child is and who they are with is one way to combat experimentation with inhalants, as it is with other drugs, Ms Burk said. Studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics Findings On Inhalant Abuse show that 23 percent of users do so after school, 14 percent use on weekends, and 12 percent before school, prompting one audience member to suggest that the school system consider letting middle school students out later in the day. “They have too much time after school. I live in the center of town and every day I see groups of 30 or 40 kids walking over to the Queen Street shopping plaza after school. You have to wonder if kids are using after school.”
It is never too early to intervene, Ms Burk reminded the audience. “The golden rule is to stop the experimentation. The older they get before they try anything, the less likely they will [abuse products.] If you can keep your child stone-sober until age 16, there is a greater likelihood that they will never become addicted.” Used with permission Copyright © 1999-2004 Bee Publishing Company