Deaths or poisoning rise from inhalant abuse

Brooke leaves behind her mother Anne who works as an assistant principal at a local primary school, her father Deon who manages the sewage plant, three older brothers, her boyfriend and a wide circle of friends.

The Coroner’s report is yet to be handed down, but Ryan believes it was sudden sniffing death syndrome, a known potential side-effect of using inhalants. Her daughter’s body was covered in bruises, suggesting she had a heart attack.

Ryan had no idea her daughter was using inhalants, and she is sharing her story to warn other parents about the danger and the warning signs. These include frequent headaches or headache pill usage, excessive use of deodorant or other aerosols, the smell in their bedroom, and white patches in tea towels or hand towels.

Ryan is calling for better drug education about the risk of inhalants aimed at both parents and young people through schools, and better labeling on aerosol cans to warn of the risks.

Dr Ingrid Berling, clinical toxicologist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre, has found alarming evidence of an upswing in inhalant use among young people and children.

Berling, who is presenting her full findings at the Clinical Toxicology 2022 Conference later this month, found calls to the NSW Poisons Information Center about inhalant usage nearly doubled between 2017 and 2020.

From 2010 to 2017, the number of calls on inhalants was steady at 50-60 a year, but in 2018 it rose to 75, in 2019 to 96 and in 2020 to 107. About half of the calls involved children younger than 11 years old , and another 20 per cent were less than 19.

Anne and Deon Ryan in their late daughter Brooke’s room, with her sporting jerseys.Credit:Andrew Gosling

Berling also looked at the national coronal figures and found the median age of people who died was 23 and about 70 per cent were male.

“What’s concerning in the data is that there’s a young group of children that are exposed to recreational drugs,” Berling said. “It’s only a small percentage of all of the drugs and alcohol and other drugs that are used, but it’s concerning that there are 12 and 13-year-olds that are known to be using hydrocarbons as a recreational drug.“

Berling backed Ryan’s calls for improved education, especially targeting parents, given the young age of many of the children.

Berling said the most severe potential outcome from inhalants was sudden sniffing death syndrome, which while rare could happen to anyone at any time, whether it’s their first time using inhalants or they had been doing it for a while without any previous negative effects.

Brooke was considered to be a talented young athlete.

Brooke was considered to be a talented young athlete.

Other negative effects can include reduced consciousness, seizures, nausea, vomiting, and problems with electrolytes in the body, Berling said. Persistent use can cause brain damage.

Berling said the most common aerosol to sniff was deodorant, but children were also using insecticide, dry shampoo, air freshener, air duster spray, and shoe polish – “anything that comes in a spray can” and also petrol.

Drug educator Paul Dillon, the founder and director of Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, said young people used inhalants for an instant but temporary high.

He said it tended to be the drug of choice for people who did not have the money or opportunity to buy alcohol, cannabis or other drugs, and that included the very young. Brooke was on the older side for inhalant abuse, given she didn’t come from a low socio-economic family.

Dillon said inhalant abuse had grown as a problem in the last decade, especially in regional areas, but providing drug education on inhalants directly to the young people posed a dilemma because it alerted them to the possibility.


“How do you talk about it without encouraging experimentation?” Dillon said. “You can talk about how it can kill you, but the reality is this a product they could just go to their parents’ bathrooms and pick up.”

A spokesperson for the NSW Education Standards said Authority age-appropriate drug education including information on inhalants was part of the syllabus and schools could cover it in more depth if they had identified a particular problem in their community.

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