One huff may be fatal, inquest told

Last updated 17:38 19/12/2012

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A coroner is calling for a carefully coordinated approach to help prevent huffing, after an inquest attributed the death of teenager to solvent abuse.

In the decision published today, Rotorua Coroner Wallace Bain said inhalants and propellants in cans were so widely available that any age restriction ban on sales may be totally impractical.

Dangers of huffing did not appear to be fully appreciated, which was why an education programme was probably the most effective way to get the necessary messages through.

A single huff of butane from a cigarette lighter could be fatal, particularly to a new user, ESR said in evidence to the inquest.

The inquest was held into the death of a 16-year-old, who was found dead in bed by his father in January 2011.

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

ESR noted 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."

The teenager, whose name was suppressed, had some heart issues when he was younger, but by the time he was 16 there were no significant medical conditions, Bain said.

The inquest heard the youth 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 2011 New Zealand coroners dealt with 28 deaths due to butane toxicity, with more than 60 deaths since 2000, 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," Bain said.

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

The ESR evidence said long term abusers of butane were susceptible to neurological problems such as memory loss, disturbed sleep, depression, personality changes, cognisant impairment and anxiety.

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