Children love to get dizzy. Go to any playground and you will see boys and girls hanging upside down on jungle gyms, swinging and twirling on swing sets, and pushing to go ever faster on merry-go-rounds. Absent the equipment, children will simply spin around until they fall, giggling to the ground.

Humans seem to have an innate desire to alter their state of consciousness. Amusement parks make big money on this inclination, and so do drug dealers. The impulse that prods a child into dizzying spins also drives substance abuse and addiction.

Those who track the onset of substance abuse confirm what one assumes about children. The consciousness-altering behavior of the playground often finds expression in young children in their homes. Either by serendipity or with intent, children find many substances in the house that can give them a dizzying “buzz.”

Even in homes where children do not have access to illicit drugs, and where prescription medications are stored safely, many chemicals used as inhalants are readily available. According to research cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, six percent of children in the United States have tried to alter consciousness via an inhalant by the time they are in the fourth grade. One child out of five has abused inhalants by the time he or she has entered the eighth grade.

The use of inhalants by pre-teens exceeds the misuse of prescription medication and marijuana.  According to statistics from the Monitoring the Future Survey of 1999, inhalant use peaks during the eighth grade, and there is strong evidence to suggest that inhalants serve as a gateway to later illicit drug use.

Inhalants are usually put into four classifications, three of which are readily accessible in most U.S. households.

Volatile solvents are quite common and easily used. Being “volatile,” these agents vaporize at room temperature. The most common examples are gasoline, cement glue, correction fluids and many felt-tip markers.

Aerosols are usually found in pressurized containers such as spray paint, hair spray or deodorant.

Gases are harder to find in the home, with one major exception. Nitrous oxide, better known as “laughing gas,” is often used to pressurize whipped cream dispensers. Also available in this group are propane and butane.

Nitrites are commonly used for medical purposes and act on different body systems than the other three categories. The only way to acquire nitrites for illicit purposes is through the black market.

There are several preferred methods of inhaling these substances. “Sniffing” or “snorting” the substance directly from its container is the most common. Some users spray aerosols directly into the mouth or nose.

Two methods are often used to concentrate the chemical. “Bagging” is the process by which a user empties a high quantity of a substance into a paper or plastic bag and then breathes deeply from the bag.  “Huffing” is accomplished by soaking a piece of cloth with a substance and then stuffing the cloth in the mouth and breathing deeply.

Regardless of the method, the result usually parallels the intoxicating effects of alcohol. Although each chemical is different, generally inhalants anesthetize various areas of the brain, and larger amounts will render a user unconscious.

Clearly, inhalants are a health threat. Users are in danger of the same types of injuries associated with alcohol, and there can be hallucinatory effects that can cause serious lapses in judgment. The effects of continued use include heart rhythm irregularities, convulsions and damage to the brain and other regions of the nervous system. And early use of these chemicals can lead to addiction.

So, what is a parent to do? Confronting the facts of inhalant use can make even the most prudent parents consider putting their children in lock boxes. However, clear, repeated and early messages about drug use are better deterrents. Research continues to show that parental anti-drug use messages do get through. Children’s best defense against drug use is the voice in their own heads saying “no.”

That voice should sound a lot like Mom or Dad.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.

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