Blown Away: The Perils of Compressed Air

- Minnesota men are dying from an inexpensive and easily accessible way to get high that appears to be perfectly legal.
 
It was a few days before Thanksgiving when Tomoko Townsley found the body of her husband Jason. 

“I can remember that day, it’s like a movie,” she said. “I walked in, he’s doubled over, and there were several cans on floor.”

He was surrounded by cans of computer keyboard cleaner; even their six-year-old son had feared the worst.  
 
“I told my son, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.' He asks me ‘is my dad dead?”’  “I broke his world,” she said.

Townsley is a former photographer for Fox 9 News, who now works in the Public Information Department for Hennepin County. 

THEIR STORY

It’s the story she never imagined she’d be sharing.  
 
“He was very sweet, very generous, very funny. He was a very good parent to our son,” she said. 

Their story, their love affair, began years ago in television news. 
 
Tomoko met Jason Townsley at a small market TV station in Indiana, where he was a control room director.  
 
Their courtship lasted four months, the marriage almost 20 years.  
 
“It was hard for him to handle life,” she said.

After the birth of their son six years ago, Jason began drinking.  
 
He got sober, but soon, and in secret, found a new addiction: huffing compressed air.  

“When he woke up he couldn’t even utter a word. He was making noises, but not forming any words and he grabbed me by both wrists and he finally started saying ‘don’t leave me,’” Townsley recalled. 

His addiction led to their separation. But Jason couldn’t stop huffing, even in the presence of their son. 
 
“And unprompted he said, ‘I saw my dad drinking water out of the can with the red straw.’” she said.
 
The red straw was on a can of Ultra Duster.  

Jason was driving every day from his townhome in Eden Prairie to the local Menards, where there’s a large display of Ultra Duster in the middle of the store.  A two pack sells for $7.49.  
 
Receipts show Jason was buying ten cans every day.  
 
“We sat here and I said, ‘if you keep up what you’re doing, you will die and our son will grow up without his dad,’” Townsley said.  

Jason died at 42, cause of death 'acute volatile inhalant toxicity.’ His huffing had caused a heart attack, also known as ‘sudden sniffing death syndrome.’ 
 
COMPRESSED AIR IS MOST POPULAR

Dr. Travis Olives is with HCMC’s Poison Control Center, where they get about 300 calls a year about inhalants. 

“The classic description is a young person using inhalant - whether keyboard cleaner of something else - that’s caught in the act by mom and dad, and has a sudden rush of adrenaline which causes an arrhythmia and that can be fatal,” Olives told the Fox 9 Investigators.

It’s estimated more than 1,500 consumer products can be used to get high.  
 
But the most popular these days are the varieties of compressed air and computer keyboard cleaner. They contain a chemical known as Difluoroethane, or DFE, used as a refrigerant and propellant.  
 
The products contain a warning label and some add a bittering agent to deter huffing, but it doesn’t stop everyone.

“There is a legitimate intoxicating effect from the inhalants we’re talking about.” Olives said. “I think the best predictor of drug use is what’s in your best friend’s pocket.”
  
On You Tube, there are dozens of videos of people huffing compressed air often hallucinating, staggering and passing out. The euphoria lasts a few minutes.   

Olives said it is possible to have a fatal overdose the first time huffing.
 
WHO’S HUFFING?

The Fox 9 Investigators made a public records request of the Hennepin County Medical Examiner, and discovered 16 people have died in just the last five years from inhaling products with DFE.

They’re not teenagers, they’re almost all men in their 30’s and 40’s.   
 
The obituaries never mention the circumstances.  
 
But talking to their families and looking through police reports, a picture emerges. Many were educated professionals who struggled with alcohol or other addictions. In some cases, they used compressed air because it wouldn’t show up on tests for drugs and alcohol. 
 
Bill Young was a Twin Cities comedian. 

Tim Fort had a degree in aerospace engineering. He was known as Kinetic Man and appeared on America’s Got Talent. His huffing death was ruled a suicide.  
 
Sergei Princev, a dentist, got hooked on nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and then began using 3M Dust Remover. He was found dead in his apartment with a can in his hand.

The Fox 9 Investigators also found a half dozen cases of people huffing compressed air behind the wheel, like Serghei Kundilovski who killed three people last summer along I-94 in Wisconsin.

But in Minnesota, Difluoroethane is not even covered under current DWI laws, a dangerous loophole.

Scott Hartung was also huffing while driving. He died when he lost control of his SUV. Police found several cans of compressed air in his car. 
 
Randy Anderson was huffing since he was 11 years old.  

His sister Michelle found out he was huffing when he came to stay with her in Duluth to get clean. 
 
Randy would even take videos of himself huffing and would end each video with an apology.

It was almost exactly a year ago that Randy Anderson died. He was set to go into treatment the next day, but got high one last time. He went into Wal-Mart and came to a park in West St. Paul. He was found dead inside a port-a-potty.

“He said his favorite was the computer duster. He said it was inexpensive and easy to access,” Anderson said. “Makes me sick, it makes me angry.”

NO WARNING SIGNS

Under Minnesota law, the abuse of toxic substances is a misdemeanor.  
 
Stores that sell products containing it must post a “conspicuous” warning sign that it “can be harmful or fatal.”

The Fox 9 Investigators went to several stores and also that Menards in Eden Prairie, and we didn’t see warning signs.  

But under the law, it may not be required. The Health Department told Fox 9 Difluoroethane has never been declared a toxic substance - yet another dangerous loophole.
 
“I did wonder if anyone noticed him coming back day after day buying ten cans at a time. I did wonder that,” Townsley said.

The Fox 9 Investigators went to Menards to ask them about Jason’s buying habits.

A clerk responded “wow” when told about it. 

A spokesperson for Menards tells us they were unaware compressed air had abuse potential and never received guidance from the manufacturer or state officials.

It’s unlikely a warning sign alone would’ve stopped Jason Townsley, Randy Anderson or any of the others.  
 
But they all wish they would’ve seen the warning signs earlier of the ordinary looking cans of compressed air.  
 
Their only hope is maybe it’ll keep someone from starting. 
 
“You’re not alone. You have me to live for. I love you so much. It screws with people’s heads,” Anderson said.

“I can deal with my own grief,” Townsley said. “Dealing with my son’s grief is gut-wrenching. When he says he’s missing his dad and wants to give him a dad, there’s nothing I can do.”
 
There is already a bill introduced for the next legislative session that would change Minnesota’s DWI laws and another that would prohibit the sale of compressed air to anyone under 18 years of age.
 

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