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Volatile substances are chemicals that give off fumes at room temperature. They are also called 'inhalants' because they are breathed (inhaled) through the mouth and nose . Volatile substances are a type of psychoactive drug. Psychoactive drugs are drugs taken for pleasure that act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel or act. Intoxication (being under the influence) through the use of volatile substances reduces the ability of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to function. The effects of a volatile substance are felt quickly after inhaling because the large surface area of the lungs allows the blood to quickly transport it to the brain within minutes of use. This causes the level of the drug in the blood to be at its highest point very quickly .
There are around 250 household, medical and industrial products that contain volatile substances that can be used act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel or act . Many of these are easily available.
Volatile substances are usually classified into four groups :
The most commonly used volatile substances are everyday items including: glues; spray paints; petrol; gas from cigarette lighters; acetone in nail polish remover; varnish; bottled fuel; and aerosol propellants.
Inhalation of volatile substances produces a variety of short-term effects . The effects are experienced within a few minutes and only last for a short time, usually less than an hour. In some cases, volatile substance use can cause serious long term effects, even death. The effects of volatile substances are shown below in Table 1.
|Progressive short term effects (low to high dose)||Long term or chronic effects||Pregnancy effects|
|Source: Adapted from d'Abbs P, Maclean S, 2008  and Parliament of Victoria, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, 2002 |
There are also large financial costs associated with VSU for the wider Australian community. In 2005, the estimated total cost of petrol sniffing in Central Australia was $78.9 million, the majority of which related to the costs associated with ill-health caused by VSU ($38.1 million) and those associated with crime ($16.2 million) .
At present, there is no thorough collection of data about VSU-associated mortality (deaths) or morbidity (serious injury and hospitalisation) in Australia . This is because users typically present to health facilities with illnesses ( for example, pneumonia) or injuries (for example, burns) caused by VSU, but the hospital records only reflect the specific illness or injury.
Similarly in the case of deaths, the practice is to list the medical explanation of the cause of death rather than the use of volatile substances that led to it . For example, the cause of death of a petrol sniffer may be recorded as asphyxiation (suffocation) rather than the petrol sniffing that precipitated the asphyxiation.
The following facts represent the best summary of what is known at a national and state level about mortality and morbidity due to VSU:
There is more information available at a regional level on deaths associated with petrol sniffing, and in all cases those who died were Indigenous . What is currently known about regional level mortality due to VSU includes:
According to available evidence, the use of volatile substances – especially petrol sniffing – among the Indigenous population is much higher that of the non-Indigenous population. The use of volatile substances has major impacts on Indigenous people, families, communities and the wider Australian community.
It is important to develop policy and practice to address volatile substance use among Indigenous people. The much greater disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people in the areas of education, employment, income, and housing are important contributors to the use of volatile substances. Reducing volatile substance use and its impacts requires a holistic approach addressing this disadvantage. Programs addressing volatile substance use should be operated in combination with a range of general programs aimed at ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous people and other Australians in the areas of education, employment, income and housing.