Petrol is an organic substance derived from crude oil found underground. It contains a mixture of volatile, toxic hydrocarbons. Tetraethyl lead is commonly added to petrol during processing.
Petrol sniffing is a form of substance misuse. Petrol sniffers deliberately inhale the petrol fumes given off for the intoxicating effect. They hold a saturated cloth over their nose and mouth or sniff directly from a small container. Intoxication can be rapid, within one to five minutes. Depending on the method, the effects may last for minutes or several hours. Young people also sniff other substances such as glue, photocopier fluid, aerosols, paint thinner, cleaning and lighter fluids.
Sniffing petrol is harmful
After sniffing, 'hangovers' and headache may last several days. There is some evidence that short-term petrol misuse does not cause permanent damage to the body.
The following diagram outlines the long-term effects of petrol sniffing.
A range of serious problems can result from sniffing petrol, including pneumonia, asphyxiation, burns, coma, seizures, malnutrition, permanent brain damage, injuries and sudden death. Other problems associated with sniffing petrol include dog bites and getting lost (Gell 1995:17-20).
'Sudden sniffing deaths' have mostly been associated with sniffing aerosol sprays, cleaning and correction fluids and glues. It is believed these substances cause the heart to react abnormally, causing irregular heart beats (National Information Service on Drug Abuse 1985:52-53).
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Sniffing is sometimes seen as a symptom of a family's lack of control over children. However, sniffing can occur in families that provide a lot of care for their children and do not seem to have many problems.
Young people, especially those who become long-term, regular sniffers, often become isolated from their families and community. This isolation can make it harder to keep in touch with the sniffer and encourage him or her to stop sniffing.
In addition to family problems, there is a wide range of possible social problems associated with petrol sniffing:
Not all people who sniff petrol develop problems. Some adults will say that they sniffed when they were children and have no obvious problems. Consequently, some communities may not consider petrol sniffing to be as dangerous or potentially harmful as health staff do. Communities may be more likely to see petrol sniffing as a problem when it is actually causing direct problems in the community - such as severe health problems in the sniffers or disruption or violence in the community.
It has been found that young women who have sniffed petrol often stop when they become pregnant. Even if a woman has stopped, she may have a smaller baby and may need additional health care during and after the pregnancy. There is some evidence of birth defects and disabilities in babies born to women who sniffed petrol (Lipson 1984:40).
Regular use of inhalants leads to tolerance. Withdrawal symptoms may include chills, headaches, abdominal pains, muscular cramps and hallucinations (National Information Service on Drug Abuse 1985:14).
In the Top End, the earliest record of Aboriginal people sniffing petrol was in 1951. It is thought that American service men stationed in the Top End during the war introduced Aboriginal people to the practice. It now occurs widely throughout remote communities of the Northern Territory, Western Australia, northern parts of South Australia and Queensland (Brady 1995c:3).
Petrol sniffing: major regions of prevalence from Brady 1992
It is difficult to maintain current figures on the number of people sniffing in the Northern Territory. The number of people sniffing petrol goes up and down over time as young people experiment or sniff occasionally. 'Boss' or chronic sniffers may move in and out of communities. It is thought that they are often responsible for encouraging young people to take it up.
In Australia between 1981-1991, there were 60 Aboriginal males and 3 Aboriginal females whose deaths were associated with petrol sniffing. They ranged in age from 11 to 32. The causes of death included pneumonia, cardiac failure/arrest, aspiration and burns. Twenty of these deaths were people who either lived in the NT or who were treated in NT hospitals (Brady 1995c:4;6-7).
In 1985, there were 14 communities in Central Australia reporting young people sniffing. In July 1997, it was estimated that there were around 200 young people sniffing petrol across 10 communities in Central Australia. Approximately 40 were classified as 'chronic' sniffers (Mosey 1997:11).
Most Aboriginal petrol sniffers are between seven and thirty years of age and live on remote communities. Boys and young men are more likely to sniff petrol than girls and young women.
In some communities many children and youths might try petrol sniffing at least once or twice. Most of these 'experimental' users will not become regular or long-term sniffers. Recently, there have been reports of young Aboriginal people sniffing petrol in the urban areas around Darwin and Alice Springs.
Generally groups of young people will inhale petrol together. Each person inhales from his or her own can of petrol or petrol soaked cloth until the person is intoxicated. The person may repeatedly inhale petrol fumes over a period of several hours to maintain the desired level of intoxication. Usually the sniffing stops when the petrol supply runs out or when the sniffer becomes too hungry or tired to keep it up.
Some communities in Western Australia and South Australia have passed local by-laws to declare petrol sniffing an offence. Some people argue that it should be made illegal everywhere. Other people argue that sniffers would be sent to jail instead of being treated for petrol misuse. In the NT, local government legislation currently does not allow similar by-laws to be made.
In the NT, under section 18 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1993, it is illegal to sell or supply petrol to anyone when it is known or should be known that the person will use it as a drug or supply it to someone else to use as a drug.
The Community Welfare Act provides a statutory mechanism to protect sniffers (or any child and young person) under the age of 18 who are 'in the need of care'.