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What parents need to know about inhalant abuse

Posted Wednesday, August 24, 2005

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When the new school year begins Ricky Stem and Michael Franklin won’t be among the students getting to know their new teachers and classmates. Their addictions to inhalant abuse claimed both boys. Michael was hooked on all sorts of products, including gasoline, air fresheners and computer cleaning compounds. Ricky inhaled Freon from his home’s central air conditioning system.

Inhalant abuse is one of those “kid” activities that most parents know nothing about.

Inhalant abuse is one of those “kid” activities that most parents know nothing about. The few who do, discount “huffing,” as it is called, as relatively harmless. Huffing is the act of deeply inhaling chemicals in more than 1,400 different products found in every home, school, church and garage. It produces a short-term “high” that can exact a terrible toll including sudden death, which is how Michael Franklin and Ricky Stem died. Their mothers, Tracy Franklin of Columbus, Ohio, and Diane Stem from Old Hickory, Tenn., have never met. But they share a common bond -- they want other parents to know their stories -- to avoid the tragedies they have each experienced.

More than 25 percent of sixth graders report having engaged in this dangerous activity. Stem and Franklin point out that these children risk long-term health problems, including brain, liver and kidney damage. “They don’t realize that first time abusers are as likely to experience a deadly heart attack as those who have been huffing for longer periods of time,” these mothers warn. They also don’t know that the addiction is hard to overcome and that inhalant abuse is often the training ground for use of illegal substances and alcohol.

Diane Stem laments that she did not even know what huffing was until Ricky died. “We warned him about alcohol and illegal substances,” she says. “If we had only known about inhalants we could have talked with him and he would be alive today. We didn’t know.”

Tracy Franklin did know about inhalants. In one of life’s sad ironies, she is an undercover police officer dealing with illegal substances every day. “Even when you know about huffing,” she says, “you often miss the subtle signs of abuse.” Her tipoff was lots of aerosol cans in Michael’s bedroom, along with the fact that the gasoline can in the garage never seemed to be where she had left it after refilling the lawn mower.

Tracy took action with Michael, working with counselors, teachers and church officials to make sure Michael got the support and help he needed to overcome his addiction. Michael died the night before he was to have entered a rehabilitation facility. Franklin was so motivated by her son’s death that in February she participated in the announcement of a special program, available free to guidance counselors across the country, to help educate parents about inhalant abuse. She wrote a letter, read by Hope Taft, First Lady of Ohio, in which she described her struggle to save her son from himself.

“I still cannot speak publicly about his death,” she says, “but I wanted to communicate to other parents, to make them aware of the dangers. Mrs. Taft was kind enough to read my letter. I hope parents listened. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this experience.”

The Alliance for Consumer Education, a Washington, D.C.-based foundation, in collaboration with the American School Counselor Association and its state chapters, knows Diane Stem and Tracy Franklin well. Cindi Bookout, ACE executive director, works to make sure their stories are told so that other parents will be spared their pain. “Our goal is to make materials available that will help educate parents of children six through 12 years of age about inhalant abuse,” she says. The organization also offers advice on its Web site ( and collaborates with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

“We want parents to know the warning signs, subtle though they are, and to talk to their children about the dangers of inhalant abuse whenever they discuss alcohol and illegal substance abuse.” Guidance counselors can get the free program by faxing a request to 202-872-8114 or by visiting the ACE Web site ( Bookout notes that guidance counselors have embraced the turnkey program enthusiastically. “We are encouraged by their overwhelming response,” she says.

Diane Stem and Tracy Franklin support such efforts to reach parents. Stem says, “I’m committed to telling everyone who will listen about inhalant abuse.” Franklin shares this desire. “Our children are so precious, yet so vulnerable, and we must do whatever we can to be aware and to protect them, sometimes from themselves. Helping parents talk to their children is the key. Start when they are young,” she urges.

Courtesy of ARA Content

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