Coroner urges education on huffing

MICHAEL DALY
Last updated 05:00 20/12/2012

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A coroner is calling for a carefully co-ordinated approach to help prevent huffing deaths after a 16-year-old died in Rotorua.

Rotorua coroner Wallace Bain said too many people were dying from huffing, which involves inhaling butane, mostly from canisters.

Inhalants and propellants in cans were so widely available that any age restriction ban on sales may be totally impractical, he said in his findings after an inquest earlier this year.

"The court notes also that in many instances families are simply not aware that their loved young ones are indulging in this practice of ‘huffing'."

An educative programme was probably the most instructive way to get the necessary messages through, he said.

A single huff of butane from a cigarette lighter could be fatal, particularly to a new user, a report from Environmental Science and Research to the inquest said.

The 16-year-old, whose name was suppressed, was found dead in bed by his father in January last year.

A pathologist told the hearing the healthy teenager had inhaled butane, which caused a cardiac arrest.

ESR noted that butane was an asphyxiant and caused toxicity by displacing oxygen. There was no suggestion the teenager was intending to take his own life, the coroner said.

"It seems clear that it is an unfortunate combination of events and perhaps a misplaced view that he might obtain euphoria from the use of butane," Dr Bain said.

The inquest was told the boy had undergone a CT scan after being assaulted and concussed five months before his death. He had no other head injuries and was not on medication at the time of his death.

Between 2007 and last year, New Zealand coroners dealt with 28 deaths attributed to butane toxicity, with more than 60 deaths since 2000, Dr Bain said.

"These statistics are frightening and decisive action is required to help reduce these entirely preventable deaths of New Zealand's young people."

The NZ Drug Foundation noted that playing around huffing was like playing Russian roulette, because butane was so fast acting and unique that it was possible to overdose quickly.

"The court is especially alarmed that young people are killing themselves in this way, blissfully unaware of the life-threatening risks they are exposing themselves to from huffing," Dr Bain said.

He recommended his findings be sent to the ministers of youth affairs, social development and health for them to take a co-ordinated cross-agency educative and possible regulatory approach and action.

The ESR report said long-term abusers of butane were susceptible to problems such as memory loss, disturbed sleep, depression and personality changes.

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