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Inhalant use by eighth graders in Fairfax County is three times higher than 12th graders, and almost twice the national average, according to the newly released Fairfax County Youth Survey for the 2012-13 school year.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, abusers of inhalants breathe them in through the nose or mouth in a variety of ways, often called “huffing.” They may sniff or snort fumes from a container or dispenser such as a glue bottle or a marking pen, spray aerosols such as computer cleaning dusters directly into their nose or mouth, or place a chemical-soaked rag in their mouth. Abusers may also inhale fumes from a balloon or a plastic or paper bag. Although the high produced by inhalants usually lasts just a few minutes, abusers often try to prolong it by continuing to inhale repeatedly over several hours.

According to the FCPS Youth Survey, five percent of eighth-graders interviewed admitted to using inhalants within the last 30 days, as opposed to only 1.4 percent of 12th graders.

“There may be a logical reason for that,” said Mary Ann Panarelli, director of Fairfax County Public Schools Intervention and Prevention Services. “Eighth-graders who are inclined to get high have far less access to illegal drugs or alcohol than high schoolers, so they may experiment with household items that are readily available to them. As they get older, they may move on to more effective methods.”

But not all may survive the experiment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, bone marrow damage and brain damage can all be long-term effects of using inhalants.

Huffing can even be lethal the first time. Sniffing highly concentrated amounts of the chemicals in solvents or aerosol sprays can directly cause heart failure within minutes. This syndrome, known as “sudden sniffing death,” can result from a single session of inhalant use by an otherwise healthy young person, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, new users ages 12-15 most commonly abuse glue, shoe polish, spray paints, gasoline, and lighter fluid. Other common inhalants are air fresheners or room odorizers known as “rush,” correction fluid, degreasers, cleaning fluids and nitrous oxide in whipped cream dispensers known as “whip-its.”

The FCPS Youth Survey results show that across all grades surveyed, girls in Fairfax County are more likely than boys to abuse inhalants overall (3.1 percent vs. 2.7 percent respectively) and ethnically, Hispanics top the percentage chart at 4.9 percent vs. 2 percent for whites.

“I suspect that girls are much less likely to break the rules,” said Panarelli. “That might explain why those seeking to get high may try inhalants, which are not considered controlled substances and therefore not technically illegal. In terms of Hispanics, we unfortunately have seen that group engaging in risky behaviors across the board.”

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future study, 2.7 percent of eighth-graders nationwide admitted to using inhalants within the past 30 days, as opposed to the 5 percent of eighth-graders reporting inhalant use in Fairfax County.

Panarelli said she was not sure what factors exist in Fairfax County for that figure to be nearly twice the national average, but said that a FCPS program called “Three to Succeed” based on the Youth Survey analysis shows that having just three “assets,” such as having high personal integrity, performing community service, having teachers recognize good work, participating in extracurricular activities and having parents and other adults to talk to, dramatically reduces risk behaviors such as inhalant use.

“Young people in Fairfax County report positive influences from the people and other assets in their lives,” she said. “Though there are obviously disparities that make it more challenging for some.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com