Some science behind the scenes

Aerosols and ‘dusters’

Aerosols used for spray paint, hair spray, air freshener and computer cleaners [known as dusters] may contain butane, propane, fluorocarbons, toluene and chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs].

One of the most frequently abused products is the computer cleaner, principally because many children and adolescents use computers and the spray can is often bought unwittingly by their parents to clean it.  In slang terminology this is referred to as a ‘duster’.

Gas duster, is also known as canned air.  As a product it is used to clean electronic equipment and other sensitive devices that cannot be cleaned using water. The can comes with a straw to direct the forceful wind that it can produce. The gases inside the can have been compressed to the point that they have become liquid, and they evaporate before leaving the can, since the valve draws from the top. Despite the name "canned air," the cans actually contain gases that are much easier to compress into liquids, such as difluoroethane, trifluoroethane, or tetrafluoroethane.  Hydrocarbons, like butane, were often used in the past, but their flammability forced manufacturers to use fluorocarbons.

Since gas dusters are one of the many inhalants that can be easily abused, many manufacturers have added a bittering agent to deter people from inhaling the product.

One genuinely helpful web site said it cannot understand why we use them.  A portable fan blowing air onto the keyboard would work just as well or even a hair dryer on ‘cool’.

Effects of inhalation

Not only do these substances not give you any form of spiritual experience – apart possibly from the hallucinations caused by hypoxia or delirium caused by poisoning  – they can lead to permanent injury and death.  You may get a rush from the endorphins your body produces to counteract the fact you are in deep trouble from the hypoxia and the toxins.  The risks include:

  • Hypoxia  - can occur due to inhaling fumes from a plastic bag, or from using proper equipment but not adding oxygen or room air.
  • Frostbite - When a gas that was stored under high pressure is released, it cools abruptly and can cause frostbite if it is inhaled directly from the container
  • Burns – many of these products are volatile and can catch fire or explode, especially when combined with smoking.
  • Incidental injury - users may also injure themselves due to loss of coordination or impaired judgment.  For example

I see Jesus! - Inhalants – Duster by DY EROWID
My friend Craig was down and looking to get fucked up because his Girlfriend was in Canada on a Cruise (smoking lots of bud and opium.) So we went over to a hardware store and looked around for some Computer Duster. …..The next day Dan came over and we went to hit the bottle behind this building. We did it a few times, and then he took a big one, starting trippin out, and fell face first into the concrete.

He busted both his teeth and had blood everywhere. At first I thought he was dead. He then came too [sic]……….Computer Duster can kill…….It is very urgent that you don't do this alone, and that if you do it with another friend make sure they are tripping out when you are. Don't do it around hard places, around water, or anything else you could hurt yourself around if you do pass out. ……….Computer Duster also kills brain cells and damages your lungs.

  • Pneumonia 
  • Cardiac failure  or arrest
  • Vomiting and nausea – which due to the sedated state can lead to aspiration of vomit
  • Hearing loss  
  • Limb spasms and seizures
  • Damage to the central nervous system 
  • Brain damage -brain damage is typically seen with chronic long-term use as opposed to short-term exposure
  • liver and kidney damage
  • Death  - death from inhalants is generally caused by a very high concentration of fumes. Deliberately inhaling solvents from an attached paper or plastic bag or in a closed area greatly increases the chances of suffocation.  Death from solvent abuse occurs most commonly from aspiration of vomit while unconscious or from a combination of respiratory depression and hypoxia.   Deaths typically occur from complications related to excessive sedation and vomiting. 

The following chemicals in this class of product can cause the additional problems shown…..

  • Benzene use can cause bone marrow depression.
  • Toluene can damage myelin.

Furthermore, if you don’t die you can so mess up your mind that you don’t know what you are doing or become violent, dangerous and even permanently psychotic.

Volatile substance abuse and crime: data from U.K. press cuttings 1996-2007 - Flanagan RJ, Fisher DS. Toxicology Unit, Clinical Biochemistry, Bessemer Wing, King's College Hospital, Denmark Hill, London SE5 9RS.
Volatile substance abuse (VSA, solvent abuse, 'glue sniffing'), carries a risk of sudden death (some 700 deaths in the UK, 1996-2006). However, mortality data take no account of the social cost of the habit.

From press cuttings we have identified 508 instances (569 individuals: 507 male, median age 25 yr, range 8-51 yr and 62 female, median age 18 yr, range 11-36 yr) where VSA, either alone or together with alcohol/other drugs, was reported in association with criminal or antisocial behaviour that resulted in a criminal conviction or caution.  The frequency of reports decreased from 84 per annum (1997 and 1998) to 20 (2007). The agents reported (17 individuals, two agents) were:

  • 'glue' (225)
  • LPG/'butane'/aerosol propellants (176)
  • 'solvents' (158),
  • and petrol (gasoline) (27).

The offences cited (most serious crime) were::

  • homicide (35),
  • rape or other sexual assault (34),
  • arson (25),
  • assault or serious threat of assault (192),
  • child neglect/cruelty (6),
  • attempting to pervert the course of justice (2),
  • criminal damage (41),
  • burglary/robbery/theft/shoplifting (100),
  • nuisance/ breach of the peace/breach of antisocial behaviour order (104),
  • driving whilst impaired and other vehicle-related offence (22),
  • and supply (non-retail) (8).

Thirty offenders were given life sentences or detained indefinitely under mental health legislation. Reports came from all parts of the UK, although most were from Northern England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. 

There were many reports of recidivists; one 34-year-old male had made 113 court appearances, and had spent approximately nine years in custody. Although there are severe limitations to data derived from press cuttings and notwithstanding that in some cases VSA may have been raised in mitigation, these data provide an additional insight into the problem posed by VSA in the U.K.