Jun 17


Drug Education – Volatile Substance Abuse (VSA)

Drug education (or the lack of it) is failing our young people. Volatile Substance Abuse (VSA), otherwise known as solvent abuse, glue-sniffing or huffing, is the second most commonly abused drug after cannabis in young people. More children and young people die each year from VSA than from all the other illegal drugs put together. According to the VSA Prevention Organisation, Solve It, the youngest person to die from VSA was just seven years old, and the oldest was 80 years old. Moreover, research shows that the vast majority of drug users admit that solvent abuse was their stepping stone to illegal drugs. Clearly, more drug education is necessary to reduce this problem.

So how can drug education help?

Drug education is key to preventing children from becoming engaged in ‘experimenting’ with drugs. This occurs initially out of curiosity because without being provided with the bare facts there is little to stop them toying with such dangers. Drug education and information regarding solvent abuse to young people must be delivered in a sensitive and responsible manner. Providing too little drug information can be just as fatal as providing too much: Listing in detail what exact substances to misuse and how to do so is like providing them with a drug user’s manual, whilst not providing any warning at all could result in young people failing to recognise the dangers.

A report by St Georges University in July 2007 detailed the latest statistics regarding deaths associated with abuse of volatile substances between 1971 – 2005. It summarises key findings of 45 deaths associated with VSA in 2005 bringing the recorded total of deaths since 1971 to a staggering 2,198 in the UK alone. In under 18’s, the number of deaths were equal between male and female, but in over 18’s, there were four more times as many male deaths as that of females.

What solvents can be abused?

One of the problems is that these substances of abuse are easily accessible because they are legally available and inexpensive. Many household, office and automotive products contain solvents and propellants used as inhalants. It is estimated that the average household contains between 30 – 50 products that can be abused. These include lighter fluid, paint and paint thinners, computer keyboard spray cleaner, typewriter correction fluid, permanent marker pens, nail varnish remover and aerosols.

How are volatile substances abused?

No specialist equipment such as needles or pipes are required to administer the drugs. The vapours are usually inhaled from products either directly from open containers of solvent or directly from spray canisters and in the case of gases, by using a plastic bag placed over the nose and mouth, or inhaled through a rag.

Testing for volatile solvent abuse

There are currently no home drug testing kits to test for volatile substance abuse but signs and symptoms of VSA may be a strong smell of solvents on clothes, skin and breath and, after prolonged use, the redness known as ‘glue-sniffers rash’ around the mouth and nose. As with other forms of drug abuse, other symptoms may include an increase in anti-social behaviour and crime, periods of depression and other emotional imbalances, absenteeism from school or work and a withdrawal from friends and family.

Drug Education: Is solvent abuse addictive?

Whilst glue-sniffing is not generally regarded as physically addictive compared to illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin, it can be psychologically addictive and certainly carries severe physical dangers: ‘Sudden sniffing death’ is unique to VSA. This is a catastrophic and very sudden heart failure resulting in immediate death and frequently occurs in people who have never sniffed a volatile substance before.

Drug Education: The symptoms of volatile solvent abuse

In the short term, inhalers may experience slurred speech, headaches, vomiting, wheezing, loss of motor co-ordination and hallucinations. Dangers always present with solvent abuse include aspiration of vomit and hypoxia which is where the body is deprived of sufficient oxygen: This is particularly prevalent in the inhalation of butane or gasoline vapours. Of the 45 people who died in 2005 in the UK from VSA, 80 percent of the deaths were associated with butane. In the longer term, use can cause damage to kidneys, liver and the brain, as well as hearing loss and central nervous system problems.

Many adults will remember as children idly having a sniff of a pot of glue or liquid paper at school just because it ‘smelled funny’. This ‘innocent’ moment at school can be a defining moment of a young person’s life – to sniff or not to sniff – and their decision will be largely influenced by their drug education. The good news is that since 1992, raised awareness has resulted in a significant fall in deaths from volatile substance abuse but, while the fact remains that one person in the UK still dies from VSA every week, increasing awareness of drug abuse through drug education is essential, whether young people receive this in the classroom or at home from their parents.

Visit our home drug tests FAQ page for more information – or our drug information page for details on other drugs. Alternatively, visit our tackling drug addiction for friends and families page for support, advice and information. Alcohol information is also available, given that it is arguably the greatest of all gateway drugs.

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Jun 10

Record Opium Harvest in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has just had the largest opium harvest in it’s history – which will have a significant ongoing impact on the volume of Heroin that will be hitting the streets across the globe.

Officials from the USA have increased their efforts to convince the government of Afghanistan to begin spraying herbicide on opium poppies – an action that many believe will help reduce the opium production but could affect the stability of the region by dividing the government there.

According to United Nations estimates, Afghanistan now produces an amazing 93 percent of the entire world’s opiates. Since the American-led invasion in 2001, its drug revenues have grown exponentially because more traffickers are also processing opium into heroin there.

In August 2007, a United Nations report recorded a 17 percent increase in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007 and a 34 percent growth in opium production. The issue is even more recognisable in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold. Almost 4,400 metric tons of opium were produced in Helmand this year, which based on current UN statistics is almost half of Afghanistan’s overall output.

The government of Afghanistan’s opium eradication efforts have failed to keep up with this growth. Their efforts were responsible for cutting down about 47,000 acres of poppy fields this year, which although 24 percent more than last year is still less than 9 percent of the country’s overall poppy crop.

Street prices of Heroin have fallen over the last few years, making this harmful drug even easier to obtain by young people – in fact, the average starting age of Heroin use in many UK cities is just 15. Consequently, Afghanistan’s failure to adequately deal with this issue will have a global cost which will unfortunately be paid by young people who are drawn into experimentation.

This surge in Heroin production will also affect the workplace, where substance misuse already has a clear impact on accident rates, ill health, absenteeism and reduced productivity. Visit our workplace drug testing page for more information or read our home drug tests FAQ section.

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Jun 10

Cocaine and the Destruction of the Rainforests

The negative impact of illegal drugs including social problems, health problems and financial problems are well-publicised and often felt more keenly because they are close to home. But fewer people, especially those whose lifestyles embrace using illegal drugs, are inclined to view the bigger picture, part of which is the devastating effect of coca, opium and marijuana production on one of the world’s most precious resources the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon Rainforest covers over a billion acres, covering areas in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia and the Eastern Andean region of Ecuador and Peru.

This rich and precious natural resource is known as the “Lungs of our Planet”, with more than 20 percent of the world’s oxygen being produced in the Amazon Rainforest. Over half of the world’s estimated 10 million species of plants, animals and insects live in the tropical rainforests and more than 25 percent of the active ingredients found in modern cancer-fighting drugs come from organisms found only in the rainforest. Twenty percent of the globe’s fresh water is found in the Amazon Basin.

That is the good news. The bad news is that man is systematically destroying it, through, amongst other things, production of illicit drugs which is causing mass de-forestation, pollution of waterways, erosion and global climate change.

It is estimated that plantations in the Peruvian Amazon have increased sevenfold during the last 15 years, with coca plants being the largest crop under cultivation to meet the increasing demand for cocaine in Europe and the USA.

Over the past twenty years, approximately 5.9 million acres of rain forest have been lost to drug production fields in the Andean regions of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. To make just one gram of cocaine requires almost 300 grams of dried coca leaves.

To produce a 2.5 acre crop of coca plants, approximately 10 acres of forest must be cleared or burned (how’s that for a carbon footprint), causing air pollution, loss of habitat to thousands of plant and animal species, and soil erosion. The award-winning scientist and expert in biodiversity, Dr Edward O. Wilson, estimates that 50,000 animal and plant species per year are being lost to deforestation.

Deforestation aside, the chemical byproducts of cocaine production have resulted in a staggering estimated 14,800 tons of chemical waste being disposed of in the Amazon River Basin every year. According to one study of cocaine production in Bolivia undertaken by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, just one kilo of cocaine base required three litres of concentrated sulfuric acid, ten kilos of lime, up to 80 litres of kerosene, 200 grams of potassium permanganate and one litre of concentrated ammonia.

Annually, according to Peruvian forest engineer Marc J. Dourojeanni, coca growers dump 15 million gallons of kerosene, 8 million gallons of sulphuric acid, 1.6 million gallons of acetone, 1.6 million gallons of the solvent toluene, 16,000 tons of lime and 3,200 tons of carbide into the valley’s watershed.

In addition to this hazardous chemical waste, herbicide spraying to destroy coca fields in the war against drugs is having the undesired effect of driving growers and traffickers out of their usual territory and further into the jungle into National Park areas to escape authorities and set up more plantations without detection. Even worse, indigenous leaders claim that local farmers and their families are dying or becoming sick as a result of polluted water sources.

It is projected that the rainforest could be all but destroyed within forty years and in spite of the appalling human costs from production through to consumer, the demand for cocaine in Europe and the US continues to increase. In conclusion, whilst those who are using drugs often perceive an immediate present benefit from drug-taking, ultimately the cost will be borne in future by our children’s children – a very high price to pay for living in the moment.

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