What are Solvents?
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 de-greasing compounds. Others are used as propellant gases in aerosols or as fuels such as petrol or cigarette lighter gas (butane). Most households, factories and offices use a range of solvents which can be inhaled.
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.
In any given area, a proportion of adolescents mainly aged between 12 and 16 would have tried inhaling solvents. It is difficult to quantify, but statistics suggest that around 7.6 per cent of secondary school children would have tried solvents at least once. VSA is often sporadic and isolated to hot spots or areas where it is hardly done.
Solvent abuse is the only drug where girls not only match boys, but sometimes outnumber them in taking the drug (usually around the age of 13 years). Only a minority will go on to become regular users, often inhaling alone to escape from personal problems. The UK does not measure adult volatile substance abuse. However, the mortality statistics indicate that whilst VSA mortality has fallen amongst young people, the mortality for adults has remained roughly the same since the 1980s.
Around 45 people die from solvent abuse every year and some of these fatalities will be first time users. The mortality rates in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the north East of England is higher than in the rest of the UK.
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 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 Intoxicating Substances Supply Act 1985, applying to England and Wales (Northern Ireland has similar legislation), makes 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’.
This Act is 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.
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.
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 co-ordination 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.
See also our page on Nitrous Oxide
Report for the All Party Parliamentary Group on NPS and VSA (PDF) June 2019
Comprehensive overview including data on prevalence, prevention, and education