It’s the huffing of aerosol products containing difluoroethane—and while it’s not as high-profile as meth or opioid use, the dangers are no less real
By Jason Langendorf
In Wisconsin, three members of a Girl Scout troop and a mother were cleaning up trash alongside a rural highway. In Oregon, it was a woman riding a bicycle. In Minnesota, it was a woman riding in a car with her husband and son, and separately, a young girl in a car being driven by her mother. All of them lost their lives as pedestrians or passengers in car accidents when they were struck by a driver who had allegedly been “dusting.”
Similar to huffing and other inhalant use, dusting isn’t exactly new—and it isn’t necessarily a problem that is on the rise. Inhalants have been used as intoxicants since at least the early 1800s (and perhaps for far longer), but it is difficult to track down reliable and comprehensive data on the subject. American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers that “since the mid-2000s, adolescent abuse of inhalants seems to have declined,” while one toxicologist consulted for this story said he had not seen an increase in cases in his own practice or anecdotal evidence from colleagues.
At the same time, AAC notes that inhalant use isn’t going away among adults, while Chris Nixon, LMSW, an addiction medicine specialist at Henry Ford Health in Michigan, recently cited “a dramatic increase in the use of inhalants since the pandemic.” In any case, there is evidence that points to the practice, if not growing more widespread, leading to increasingly lethal outcomes—either to the users or to those around them.
“A 14-year-old can go and buy it off the shelf. Hell, they could buy a case of it if they want to—a pallet if they want to. It’s essentially a drug that has no dealer.”—Phil Sieff, attorney at Robins Kaplan in Minneapolis
In the instances of the victims mentioned above, Phil Sieff, an attorney at the Minneapolis-based law firm Robins Kaplan, is seeking justice for seven deaths and three injuries—part of a suit covering seven cases across four states. Sieff sees more consistency than coincidence in the incidents that make up his client’s case.
“They all have a common thing,” says Sieff. “They all involve a younger person. I believe every one of the drivers was a male, huffing while driving a can of dust remover they had acquired shortly before—and then they wind up killing somebody who was just out minding their own business.”
The Prevalence of Dusting
Dusting—the huffing of aerosol spray products containing the active ingredient difluoroethane—seems to be peaking at a time when the public, and even most experts, are focused on more entrenched challenges such as the opioid crisis, methamphetamine abuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD).
A number of factors related to dusting have converged to create a separate crisis that, although smaller in scale, seems no less insidious: The substance in this case is inexpensive, easily accessible and hidden in plain sight as an ingredient in household items—usually cans of Dust-Off, or another product designed to remove dust from computer keyboards and equipment. And because it delivers a short but powerful high, people who inhale difluoroethane may feel encouraged to use multiple times, in rapid succession.
The difficulty of managing those highs and lows, suggests Sieff, is what leads people who “dust” in their cars to cause havoc on the roads: “One big huff and you’re whacked out immediately,” Sieff says. “Most people pass out from it immediately, or at least lose control of their limbs.”
According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, dust removers are more likely to result in death or severe bodily harm to the huffers and innocent bystanders than any other inhalant, while dust remover abuse accounts for more car crashes than any other type of inhalant.
The Damage Done
As might be imagined, dusting can be just as dangerous for the person inhaling as it is for those around them. Difluoroethane is a chemical propellant that is a well-known central nervous system depressant, and its inhalation can lead to trouble breathing, chest pain and suffocation. Those aiming for that rapid-fire high through successive hits often suffer side effects such as nausea, hallucination and overdose. Emergency room visits related to the intentional inhalation of dust removers, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, have increased steadily every year since 2006. User horror stories reveal results ranging from frostbite to death.
Worse yet is the seeming lack of will to tackle the problem. The lack of restrictions and inconsistency of warning labels around products containing difluoroethane are as vexing as the Trojan Horse quality of this substance’s “packaging.”
Not only are parents often unaware of the dangers—or even existence—of dusting, but law enforcement often isn’t trained to recognize its effects. Even clinicians may be unfamiliar with dusting.
“This isn’t alcohol,” Sieff says. “You don’t need to have a fake ID. A 14-year-old can go and buy it off the shelf. Hell, they could buy a case of it if they want to—a pallet if they want to. It’s essentially a drug that has no dealer.”
Not only are parents often unaware of the dangers—or even existence—of dusting, but law enforcement often isn’t trained to recognize its effects. Even clinicians may be unfamiliar with dusting, or slow to make the connection to a chemical intoxicant, which can cost precious moments in a life-or-death situation.
Sieff, whose Robins Kaplan firm secured a $590 million settlement from opioid manufacturers and distributors on behalf of three Tribal Nations earlier this year, says his clients want changes at the highest levels—most notably from manufacturers, who have long fought age restrictions on dusting products.
“They want, at a minimum, some sort of restriction of the sale of this product,” Sieff says. “These products are legalized drugs available to any person, regardless of age, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for under 10 dollars, at any store—any Walmart, any Home Depot, any Lowe’s—and as much as they want.”
“And if they aren’t going to do it themselves,” the attorney says of the manufacturers of difluoroethane-based products, “then we’re going to help them find a way.”