Devastating Wisconsin crash sheds light on dangers of ‘huffing'

Over the weekend, four people were killed in a crash involving a driver who had been “huffing” behind the wheel. Now, the tragedy is shedding light on the form of chemical abuse.

When it comes to huffing, one of the biggest challenges is how easily users can get their hands on the stuff. It's sold in almost every big box store, and while some stores require you show ID to prove you're over 18, you can buy as much of it as you want and never get questioned.

While it is currently unknown exactly what the suspect was inhaling, it's almost guaranteed he was buying it legally.

Dr. Joseph Lee of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation said that while there are multiple chemicals known for huffing, the most common is keyboard cleaner. Advertised as compressed air, keyboard cleaner is actually compressed gasses that when inhaled cut off oxygen to the brain and get the user high.

"It can make you pass out, it can make you light headed, it can cause euphoria for some people and some people it gives them a sense of escape," Dr. Lee said. “The high doesn’t last very long, so they use over and over and over again."

In the hit-and-run that killed three Girl Scouts and a mother in western Wisconsin, the driver and passenger in the car later admitted to police that "they had been intentionally inhaling chemical vapors...prior to the accident."

While Dr. Lee does not have any direct knowledge of the crash, he said loss of motor function is a common side effect of the drug.

“If they’re acutely intoxicated, you might find people losing consciousness, coming in and out of consciousness, slurring their speech, not being completely with it. It’s very hard to be acutely intoxicated on inhalants and not see effects," Dr. Lee said.

In 2013, the Wisconsin legislature changed DUI/OWI laws to include inhalants as an intoxicant. Minnesota approved a similar measure in March of 2018.

Minnesota Senator Greg Clausen of Apple Valley has already committed to presenting legislation next session that would make it harder to purchase compressed air.

But Dr. Lee says policy change won’t fix the problem. Instead, he suggests educating the public so they can recognize the signs of abuse and get the user help.

“I think the bulk of the solution has to be about public education--getting people help before something like this happens," Dr. Lee said.