Health: Advice on... Volatile substance abuse

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Volatile substance abuse might not make the headlines, but the latest figures show it claimed eight lives in 2005. Re-Solv's Steve Lambert looks at the types of products young people misuse and how youth workers can spot the warning signs.

- Q: What is Volatile substance abuse?

Volatile substance abuse, or VSA, is the deliberate inhalation of a volatile substance to achieve a change in mental state. In everyday parlance, it is the sniffing of glues, gasses or aerosols.

Lots of products can be abused - most of which can be found in the home, office or school. This makes this form of abuse difficult to detect, and therefore, attractive to young people.

There is not a stereotypical VSA user. People abusing volatile substances come from all walks of life and social backgrounds, although the age at which they experiment with volatile substances is often much younger than with drugs.

- Q: How many young people misuse volatile substances?

It's difficult to say precisely how many young people abuse such substances each year. A survey by the Department of Health in 2002 showed that more 11- to 12- year-olds misuse solvents and other products than take cannabis, and that one in 10 children has sniffed a substance by the age of 13.

The latest annual study by St George's Division of Community Health Sciences at the University of London revealed eight young people under the age of 18 died from volatile substance abuse in 2005. The youngest was just 11 years old.

It's also important to remember that death can occur the first time a person experiments. In fact, a decade ago more than a third of those who died had no previous history of VSA.

Q: Why do young people do it?

VSA gives an almost instantaneous high and leaves few physical tell-tale signs of use. VSA in itself is not illegal and the products capable of abuse are numerous and widely available.

Adults are largely unaware of the dangers and consequences of VSA. Therefore they don't educate young people about the subject as they would for illegal substances and alcohol.

Other factors such as abuse can lead young people to try substances, as it offers a form of escape. In such instances, the causes may be deep rooted and require the skill of a parent or youth worker to identity the true cause.

- Q: What are the warning signs?

VSA can be difficult to detect - usually there is little physical evidence of use.

However, some substances leave a distinctive rash around the nose and mouth, which is in excess of normal adolescent spots. Be aware of an aroma on or surrounding the individual, which might be like petrol, glue or furniture polish, for example. Also be alert to products found outside their normal environment, such as furniture polish in the shed, or a gas refill can outside the youth centre.

Any one of the above or a combination of them may not be conclusive of VSA but it may worth seeking further advice.

- Q: What should I do if I suspect a young person is abusing a volatile substance?

If you find a young person who is under the influence of a volatile substance, your actions are vital to their survival. First, do not confront or agitate them. VSA has an effect upon the heart, and any activity, excitement or agitation may be sufficient to place additional stress upon it and cause it to stop with very little or no chance of revival.

Wait until the young person has come down from the high and then talk clearly, rationally and openly about their actions. Establish what your organisation's procedures are for reporting such instances and follow them. Then seek professional advice if you believe the young person requires further assistance.

Steve Lambert is marketing and development manager at Re-Solv.


- Re-Solv: Re-Solv is the only UK-wide VSA charity and can be contacted on 01785 817 885 or by visiting www. It has just completed a Youth Workers' Activities Pack

- BAMA: The British Aerosol Manufacturers' Association is proactive in VSA prevention and can be contacted on 020 7828 5111 or

- Frank: Talk to Frank has a VSA section on and a helpline on 0800 77 66 00

- Annual reports on VSA-related deaths are available at

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