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Solvents

butane gas, solvent based glues, virtually all aerosols

Alcoholic Drinks

Common names

The list of volatile substances (video) which come under this heading is extensive, but includes: solvents, butane gas, solvent based glues, virtually all aerosols because the volatile substance is the propellant, thinners, petrol and fire extinguishers.

Generic name

This was once known as "Glue Sniffing" but the term was widened into "Solvent Abuse" in recognition of the wider range of substances used. As some of the substances sniffed are gases rather than solvents the term currently in use is "Volatile Substance Abuse" or VSA.

Scientific names

As with common names the list is extensive and includes products which contain the following chemicals: acetate, acetone, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, cyclotexane, ethyl ether, ketone, mexane, naptha, perchlorethylene, toluene, trichlorethylene, trichlorophane.

Action

Central nervous system depressant.

Drug form

Many household and industrial products, as outlined above.

Drug effects

Desired:

Intoxication, disinhibition, reduced anxiety.

Side-effects:

Confusion, drowsiness, loss of coordination, slurred speech, nausea, vomiting, visual disturbance.

Risks

Short-term:

There are between 50 and 100 deaths annually from the use of solvents and other volatile substances. These are virtually all from the short term risks and the very large majority of these fatalities are teenagers.

Some of the deaths result from the "sniffing" techniques used. Thus some users of gases and aerosols will spray the substance direct into the mouth. The impact of a stream of freezing cold particles on the back of the throat can produce choking and has led to heart attack.

In other cases young people have put their heads right inside plastic bags containing glues or solvents and suffocated. Other injuries and deaths result from accidents whilst under the influence. These have included drownings and road accidents.

Finally there are a class of so-called "sudden sniffing deaths". They may result from the impact on the heart of the substances concerned - often butane - and sudden violent exercise whilst under the influence. This may happen if for example the sniffer is being chased by a real or imaginary foe. The cause of death is usally given as heart attack but the mechanisms are not fully understood.

Long-term:

There is very little research into the long term risks from VSA. The evidence sometimes quoted comes from studies of long term exposure to substances in industrial settings but it is not at all clear if these long term relatively low level exposures will produce results anything like the short term, episodic, high level exposure associated with VSA.

Industrial studies have demonstrated damage to brain, liver, kidneys, lungs and airways from long term exposure to some of the above substances.

Medical use

None.

Legal status

Not illegal to possess or use in this way. It is illegal for retailers to sell volatile substances to anyone under the age of 18 whom they suspect may use them for sniffing.

How is it taken?

The contents of a tin, aerosol or cannister may be emptied into a bag or sprayed onto a cloth (video) or sleeve and the vapours inhaled. Some users spray the contents of an aerosol or butane canister directly into the mouth.

Paraphernalia

Bags containing volatile substances, empty aerosols or gas canisters (video).

Images

Video of various sniffable substances.
Video, ways of sniffing.
A selection of butane gas, glue, aerosols, thinners, etc.
Bag containing glue, empty tube etc.

Where does it come from?

Found in the home or purchased from local shops.

Helping services

Counselling agencies may be appropriate and specialist VSA services are also provided in a few areas - phone the National Drugs Helpline for local information.