What are Solvents?
Aerosols, Glue, Inhalants, Volatile substances
Some organic – that is, carbon based – compounds can produce effects similar to alcohol or anaesthetics when their vapours are inhaled. A number are used as solvents in glues, paints, nail varnish removers, dry cleaning fluids and degreasing compounds. Others are used as propellant gases (e.g. nitrous oxide) in aerosols or as fuels such as petrol or cigarette lighter gas (butane). Most households, factories and offices use a range of solvents.
These products give off vapours or are gases at normal temperatures and can be inhaled through the mouth or nose to give an intoxicating effect. This is sometimes called ‘glue sniffing’, ‘solvent abuse’ or ‘volatile substance abuse’ (VSA). Solvents may be directly inhaled, sniffed from inside a plastic or paper bag, or put on a rag before sniffing.
According to National statistics Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England 2018 [NS] the proportion of pupils who said they had taken volatile substances in the last year has been around 3% to 4% since 2010. And of those who had taken only one drug in the last year, 18% took volatile substances only. The pupils’ early experience of drug use was most likely to involve cannabis (42%) or volatile substances (40%).
The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) report published in 2019 found that lifetime use of inhalants was reported by 7.2% of the 15-16 year old students they surveyed in European schools, with large differences between countries. The gender split for lifetime use was also very even, with boys at 7.3% and girls 7.1%.
The ONS publication: Deaths related to volatile substances, helium and nitrogen in England and Wales: 2001 to 2020 registrations, published in February 2022 reports that
- Between 2001 and 2020, there were 716 deaths related to volatile substances registered in England and Wales, with an average of 36 deaths each year.
- There were 25 deaths related to volatile substances registered in 2020; this is the same as 2019 and has remained broadly stable over time.
- Between 2001 and 2020, most deaths related to volatile substances registered were among males (77.9%).
- Nitrous oxide was the third most mentioned substance on the death certificate after butane and propane, with 56 deaths registered between 2001 and 2020, and 45 of those having been registered since 2010.
Use of solvent type products to achieve intoxication is not new. In the late 19th century America and England there were crazes for nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and ether sniffing, especially at parties for the upper classes and medical students. Inhaling anaesthetic gases by the medical profession and of petrol among soldiers has also been reported in the past.
“A Grand Exhibition of the effects produced by inhaling Nitrous Oxide Exhilarating or Laughing Gas! Will be given in the Union Hall this (Tuesday) Evening, December 10th 1884.
Forty gallons of Gas will be prepared and administered to all in the audience who desire to inhale it. Twelve Young Men are engaged to occupy the front seats to protect those under the influence of the Gas from injuring themselves or others.
The effect of the Gas is to make those who inhale it either to Laugh, Sing, Dance, Speak or Fight, and so forth, according to the leading trait of their character. They seem to retain consciousness enough not to say or do that which they would have occasion to regret.
N.B. The Gas will be administered only to gentlemen of the first respectability. The object is to make the entertainment in every respect a genteel affair”.
Quoted in Brecher Licit and illicit drugs’, Little Brown 1972.
The modern day phenomenon of VSA among young people was first reported in America in the 1950s. The first case of solvent abuse in the UK was reported in 1962, but only in the late seventies did the incidence of VSA increase substantially.
In the 1970s and 80s the concern focused on the sniffing of glue but more recently inhaling aerosols, butane cigarette lighter refills and other products has become much more common. Some commentators have suggested that this trend from glue to gas has been one of the effects of the 1985 Intoxicating Substances (Supply) Act, designed to prevent shopkeepers selling glue to young people – and that this led to people inhaling more dangerous products.
There are two laws covering the sale of volatile substances, The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 and The Cigarette Lighter Refill (Safety) Regulations 1999.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 makes it an offence to supply psychoactive substances to another person, the maximum sentence is 7 years imprisonment.
It is an offence for retailers to supply psychoactive substances to another person, if the retailer knows or is reckless about whether the psychoactive substance is likely to be consumed by the person to whom it is supplied, or by some other person, for its psychoactive effects. The Home Office’s guidance for retailers is available here.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 repealed the previous Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985, it was a similar act that applied to England and Wales, and made it an offence for a person to supply or offer to supply to someone under the age of 18 a substance (other than a controlled drug) ‘if he knows or has reasonable cause to believe that the substance or its fumes are likely to be inhaled for the purpose of causing intoxication’. The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 makes it so the offences no longer relate just to the supply to young people but affect supply to people of any age.
This Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985 was primarily aimed at irresponsible retailers, but it is difficult to prove that a shopkeeper knew the substances would be inhaled (unless a ‘sniffing kit’ – a small quantity of glue plus plastic bag as one item – is sold). Thus, only relatively few prosecutions, 116 resulting in 64 convictions as of 2011, have been brought under this Act (the yearly breakdown can be found here).
Scottish common law provides for a similar offence of ‘recklessly’ selling solvents to children knowing they are going to inhale them.
The Cigarette Lighter Refill (Safety) Regulations 1999 made it an offence to ‘supply any cigarette lighter refill canister containing butane or a substance with butane as a constituent part to any person under the age of eighteen years.’
This means that shopkeepers must not sell butane gas lighter refills to an under-18-year-old, even if they claim they want it to refill their cigarette lighter. This law covers the whole of the UK.
Some young people who have used solvents in public have offended against a variety of laws and local by-laws concerned with unruly, offensive, alarming or intoxicating behaviour or breach of the peace.
Nitrous Oxide: The law on nitrous oxide is being treated differently. During March 2023, in its response to an ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs) report on the harms of nitrous oxide, the Government states that it has decided to bring forward legislation to control this substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a Class C drug. This decision went against the recommendations of the ACMD.
Inhaled solvent vapours are absorbed through the lungs and rapidly reach the brain. Breathing and heart rate slow down and repeated or deeper inhalation leads to feelings similar to being drunk with loss of coordination and disorientation. In some cases, users momentarily lose consciousness but will normally come round quickly with no lasting damage. Depending on the substance, some users report visual distortions and peculiarities similar to hallucinations
The effects are short lived and, depending on the substance used, usually last a couple of minutes to half an hour without a repeat dose. As the effects wear off users often feel tired and drowsy and may experience a hangover.
Accidental death or injury can happen especially if young people are sniffing in an unsafe environment such as a canal or river bank, on a roof or near a busy road or train line. Sniffing to the point of becoming unconscious also risks death through choking on vomit. If the method of use obstructs breathing (such as inhaling with a plastic bag over the head) death from suffocation may result.
Some solvents (such as an aerosols and lighter gas refills) sensitise the heart to the effects of exertion and can lead to heart failure, especially if the user is running around. Gases in aerosols and lighter fuel refills squirted directly into the mouth carry an increased risk of death.
Very long term, heavy use of solvents can damage the brain, kidneys and liver but this is very rare and more likely in industrial work where people work everyday in environments where solvents are used.
Tolerance can develop with regular use so more is needed to get the same effect. Whilst physical dependence is not a problem psychological dependence on the effects of solvents occurs with a small minority of users. These people may come to rely on solvents to deal with unhappiness and underlying personal, family or social problems. They often inhale alone rather than in a group with friends.
Long term regular use may also lead to people becoming very tired, forgetful and not being able to concentrate. Weight loss, depression and interference with kidney and liver functions can occur but these tend to clear up once inhaling stops.
Comprehensive overview including data on prevalence, prevention, and education
Updated March 2023