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By NBC News correspondent
TODAY
updated 7/27/2005 12:15:12 AM ET 2005-07-27T04:15:12

Inhalant abuse has been on the rise nationwide, and more teens are experiencing the tragic effects of this cheap high. NBC News correspondent Peter Alexander reports on how a common household product, a computer cleaner, can result in a deadly high.

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There's a new way to get high, and you could have it right next to your desk at home. They're designed to clean your computer but, if inhaled, these popular products have the potential to kill.

It’s called "dusting" — the term comes from the cleaning brand "Dust Off" — and it has become a teenager’s new cheap and easily accessible high, despite a warning on the side of each canister.

This form of inhalant abuse, “huffing,” has been around for years, but dusting is the more specific term associated with the use of cans of any common aerosolized computer keyboard cleaner that contains compressed gas.

One teen, 18-year-old Jessie Stotz, is now in rehab at the Pathway Family Center in Indianapolis because of dusting.

"There wasn't the hassle of finding somebody to buy it for you and stuff, you could walk into a store, being 13 years old, and buy it yourself," says Stotz.

But one hit can be crippling, as 15-year-old Ben Goudberg experienced in California.

"I couldn't move for three to four minutes, and I was staring at a door thinking I wanted to get up and go and touch it and I couldn't do it," says Goudberg. "It's one of the scariest feelings in the world."

The high from the gas paralyzes the user for several minutes and gives a feeling of euphoria. Both dusting and huffing can result in damage to the brain, lungs, heart, kidneys and liver, and can cause death. In computer cleaning products, a freon type of gas, or fluorinated hydrocarbon, is the dangerous ingredient.

The dangerous practice was dramatized in the film "Thirteen." In the opening scene, the two actresses are sitting on a bed, "dusting," and then slapping each other out of their trancelike states.

"Sudden sniffing death" describes the process of inhaled hydrocarbons provoking irregular heart rhythms in the victim, which leads to sudden fatal cardiac arrest in even very young and healthy hearts.

"Just that fast a kid could experience intoxication," says John Daily, a drug counselor at New Directions — and just that fast they could die. The compressed air in the cleaners fills a person's lungs, keeping oxygen out and potentially stopping the heart.

Some retailers, like Staples and Wal-Mart, now restrict the sales of computer cleaners to buyers over 18 years of age, and many have placed warning labels on the top of cans.

But Jeff Williams, a Cleveland police officer whose son Kyle tragically died in March while trying dusting, thinks more needs to be done.  Williams says there is already one keyboard cleaning product on the market that adds a bitter smell and taste to the chemicals, making them unpalatable, and he says all manufacturers should do the same. Williams also thinks that retailers need to do a better job of policing who they sell to.

Dusting is part of a larger problem involving inhalants, with huffing on the rise. In 2002, more than a million people abused them for the first time — the vast majority in their teens.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that inhalant experimentation is initiated earlier than any other illicit substance, with young females starting before young males. Also, a higher percentage of 12 and 13 year olds had used inhalants than marijuana. 

Inhalant abuse is often more dangerous and difficult to detect than other drug abuse. Inhalants such as glue, lighter fluid and spray paint are completely legal and found in every home — which often leads kids to think they are harmless — and abusers need to conceal only the act of inhaling, not the product.

But inhalants are addictive physically and psychologically, almost as much as alcohol.

"Not only was it the inhalant that was addictive, it was the lifestyle, the friends and the attention that I would receive when I did it," says Jessie Stotz.

But in the deadly new world of dusting, someone's first time seeking the high may also be their last.

In the United Kingdom, where deaths associated with these substances are tracked, 39 percent of the deaths occurred during the victim's first time.

Wolfe says the most important way to combat this drug abuse is to educate parents about it and to inform kids that the inhalants can kill them on the first try.

Other prevention methods include reading product labels regarding safety issues, and choosing to minimize aerosols in households by using pump sprays instead.

The warning signs of dusting are not easily detected, but these signs may indicate abuse:

  • Disappearance of the product at a rapid rate
  • Empty cans or containers of chemicals in trash cans
  • Large stashes of a chemical product in the child’s room
  • Strange smells on or around a child
  • Residue of the product on a child's clothing or face
  • Complaints of numbness of the tongue, vocal chords or throat
  • Dazed looks or bloodshot eyes

Wolfe suggests that if parents suspect inhalant abuse, they should take their child for a drug and alcohol assessment before it is too late.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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