Inhalants are a diverse group of chemicals which produce psychoactive (mind altering) vapours; they include a number of such common products as aerosols, gasoline, some glues, solvents and butyl nitrites marketed as "room (de)odorizers" or "air fresheners". The solvents concerned include alcohols, aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, aldehydes, ketones, chlorinated hydrocarbons and carbon disulphide.
The chief dangers of inhaling solvents are death by suffocation, the development of psychotic behaviour, and the state of intoxication these substances produce. Sniffing moderate amounts of inhalants for even a relatively short time can disturb vision, impair judgement, and reduce muscle and reflex control. Inhalation may be: an occupational hazard (degreasing of metals in machine industry, extraction of fats and oils in chemical and food industry, dry cleaning, painting, plastics industry); use for medical purposes (for example, the inhalation of benzedrine to clear nasal congestion, overdose of ether or other anaesthetics, or inhalation by anaesthetists); or drug abuse for 'kicks'.
Abuse of solvents as a potentially dangerous form of social challenge often begins when one or more members of a group of children or adolescents discover that prolonged inhalation makes them giddy. The symptoms of most forms of solvent abuse are fairly easy to detect and the practice should easily be discovered. Its undetected persistence over a long time points to a lack of supervision by parents or teachers. The extreme youth of those who abuse solvents (the average age is less than 19) brings the added danger that adolescents may be induced to begin experimenting with narcotic drugs or other psychotropic substances.
As yet solvent abuse is reported by relatively few countries. Statistical estimates or survey data were found for only 5 countries and verbal estimates for "some" abuse in only 11 others. The total for all countries is only 7,000, giving a global rate of 0.002 per 1 000. Only one country has moderate rates of abuse, Bolivia (0.66 per 1 000) and no country has a rate over 1 per 1,000. However, the sniffing of volatile solvents, such as glue or paint thinners, is a noted problem among children, and is a significant concern in native communities in North America and Australia.
Data from the US National Household Survey on Drug Abuse show that in 1996, 5.9 percent of adolescents (1.3 million) reported use of inhalants at least once in their lifetimes, and 4 per cent (900,000) reported using inhalants in the past year.