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Helping Students Understand the Dangers of Inhalants

by Jo-Anne Bowen, PhD, Project ALERT Trainer

Students are curious about inhalants. They already know that being around substances like paint thinner, fingernail polish remover, hairspray, airplane glue or gasoline can make them feel a little light headed, and it’s possible they’ve heard their peers talking about getting a buzz or feeling high from purposely sniffing them. But because these substances are everyday items and readily available, many young people assume they must be safe.

On the contrary, household items that carry warning labels are very much a risk if abused. The goal of Core Lesson Eight on inhalants is to teach students on how to protect themselves from all toxic chemicals and to understand the danger of using certain ones as inhalants.

Most Project ALERT lessons focus on social consequences, but Lesson Eight also focuses on serious physical consequences. The poster for this lesson is especially important, for it graphically describes how the body reacts to toxic ingredients. We want to help students understand that if they breathe the fumes created by toxic chemicals, their bodies absorb these toxins as readily as if they were drinking them. You might share with your class that using inhalants is the same as drinking gasoline—a revolting thought that should get them to think twice about sniffing, or huffing, the fumes of toxic substances. Also stress to them that inhalants are so dangerous that you can suffer permanent physical damage, or even death, the first time you try them.

The importance of Core Lesson Eight can’t be overstated. Anybody with money, no matter how young they are, can buy toxic products and use them as inhalants. And they are doing it. We know that one in ten eighth graders has tried inhalants, and that more fourth graders try inhalants than cigarettes.

Adults often find it difficult to believe these statistics. But head-in-the-sand thinking can have serious consequences for young people: not only are they getting high from household products, but we also know, without question, that inhalants are one of our most serious and potentially deadly drugs.

PA Character


The 2012 Monitoring the Future study shows the following inhalant data for 8th graders:

  • Lifetime use - 11.8%
  • Annual use - 6.2%
  • 30-day use - 2.7%
  • Disapproval of use - 83%
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