‘He wasn’t Tommy’: Family shares story of inhalant death

Tommy Byers was in his element and at his best in a crowded restaurant.

Friends say the Twin Cities waiter and sommelier had a big personality and meticulous mind.

"He was very perceptive," said his mother, Katie O’Meara-Byers. "He could read a room like nobody has ever seen. He had eyes on the back of his head."

And while the 34-year-old could juggle reservations and discern the qualities of a fine cabernet, he was also living with a shameful secret, one that ultimately cost him his life.

‘Cans everywhere’

On Halloween last year, Byers failed to show up for work. His father found his son’s lifeless body in the bathroom of his Golden Valley apartment.

His parents found something else.

"I looked around his house and the cans were everywhere, all different colors," his mother recalled.

Everywhere they looked – the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, even in the shower and next to his bed – there were dozens of cans of compressed air, also known as keyboard cleaner.

Tommy Byers had been inhaling the product – also known as huffing – for a quick and ultimately, deadly high. Even Tommy’s closest friends were in the dark about his addiction.

"I can't even fathom where he got the idea to even start doing it," said Ryan Harty, who has known Tommy since they were children.

‘Huffing’ DFE to death

The medical examiner ruled Tommy Byers's death an accident. The cause of death was "volatile inhalant toxicity," from the chemical 1,1-Difluoroethane (DFE).

There are more than a thousand consumer chemicals, solvents, and aerosols, in spray paints, glues, and cleaning fluids, that can be used as inhalants. Experts say DFE, commonly found in cans of compressed air and keyboard cleaner, appears to be the most popular.

DFE contains psychoactive properties that can affect the central nervous system, causing asphyxiation, seizures and heart attacks. Long-term abuse of DFE can damage the lungs, heart, liver, kidney and brain.

The high is short, intense, and similar in some ways to alcohol.

About 2.2 million people in the U.S. report inhalant use, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, which estimates it kills 100 to 200 people every year. A condition known as "sudden sniffing death" can kill someone the first time they use an inhalant.

Occasionally, a high-profile death will grab headlines, like pop singer Aaron Carter, who died last year while using compressed air in a bathtub. The less famous, die in quiet desperation, often in bathrooms.

Minnesota deaths from DFE

Five years ago, the FOX 9 Investigators made a public records request with the Hennepin County Medical Examiner (HCME) and uncovered 16 deaths from products with DFE.

In the last three years, the FOX 9 Investigators found eight more deaths: Four men and four women, between the ages of 17 and 48. The average age is 34 years old. Same age as Tommy Byers.

"I think the average person who engages in this, I would wager, doesn't know that is a risk," said Dr. Jon Cole, an emergency room doctor at Hennepin Healthcare and medical director of the Minnesota Poison Control System.

The Minnesota Poison Control System has documented 120 reports of toxic exposure to DFE since 2018, about 20 cases a year. None of those cases were deaths. Fatal overdoses, however, are seldom reported to the system.

Among the trends, according to the data, men are at greater risk than women, and abuse is more common in the 20s and 30s age group.

"I don't know why that hasn't gotten more attention from a regulatory standpoint," Dr. Cole said.

"This is something that's described in the medical literature for more than 50 years, and it does result in a small but real number of human fatalities every year," he added.

The DFE loophole

Under state law, 1,1-Difluoroethane (DFE) is not listed as a hazardous, toxic, or controlled substance.

However, a similarly named chemical isomer, 1,2-Difluoroethane, with fluorine on different carbons, is a greenhouse gas listed as a hazardous substance in Minnesota.

Several fatal car crashes in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been connected to drivers getting high on DFE.

In 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in a split decision, ruled that because DFE is not defined under state law, it is not covered under the plain language of the DWI statute. Writing for the majority, Justice Natalie Hudson said such a loophole needs to be fixed by the legislature.

"We acknowledge that based on our holding today, a driver dangerously intoxicated by DFE is not criminally liable under the plain language of the current DWI statutes," Judge Hudson wrote.

In 2018, the Minnesota legislature closed that loophole, amending the state drunk driving statute by changing the term "hazardous substance" to "intoxicating substance."

A 2019 bill the following year would have gone further, labeling DFE a toxic substance, prohibiting sales to anyone under 21, and requiring stores that sell products with DFE to post a notice that abuse can be "harmful or fatal."

The bill died in committee.

‘Big Box’ retailers

Products with DFE, marketed in cans of compressed air and keyboard cleaner, are commonly found in Big Box stores around the country, where they are sometimes prominently displayed for sale on end caps.

In Tommy Byers's apartment, his mother discovered two receipts, showing trips right before he died to a Menards in Golden Valley and a Home Depot in Plymouth, to buy more than a dozen cans of compressed air.

"It's easy to get, it's cheap, and there are no questions asked," O’Meara-Byers said. "You just walk out with it."

Tommy’s friend, Harty, believes retailers have a responsibility to keep customers safe.

"I mean, nobody walks in to buy 15 cans of air duster and then three days later comes in and does it again," Harty said.

Five years ago, a spokesperson for Home Depot said the company was unaware of the issue. The company did not respond this time to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for Menards told FOX 9 they "continue to study the issue" and pointed to a warning label on a can of ‘Blow Off Duster,’ which says, "Inhalant abuse is illegal and can cause injury or death."

Huffing shame

Tommy’s friends and family believe the shame of his addiction kept him from reaching out for help. How does a man of refined taste and hospitality, end up huffing compressed air?

"Tommy wasn’t Tommy anymore," his mother said. "Tommy was gone. He was a totally different guy. The stuff just took him over."

She hopes to turn her anger and grief into a cause. She wants state lawmakers to finally regulate the cans of compressed air, at once innocuous and insidious, that took away her son.

She would like to see restrictions on how many cans can be sold at one time and prominent warning signs in the stores that sell compressed air about the potential for addiction and death.

"It’s killing people. It’s poison. And it took my son’s life. My son is not going to have left this earth in vain if I can help it," said O’Meara-Byers.

If you have additional questions or know someone who is struggling with an addiction to products containing DFE, you may contact the Minnesota Poison Control System at 1-800-222-1222 or online at poison control's website here