In the 20th century, the discovery that gases called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could be used for the purposes of cooling helped lead to a revolution in refrigeration and home air conditioning technology. CFCs are relatively cheap and easy to work with, and by the time the 1970s rolled around most American homes had an air conditioner and one or more freezer/refrigerator units filled with CFC gas.
But as is so often the case with miracle substances, CFCs have a dark side. Like inorganic moths, super-light CFC gases used for cooling and refrigeration and as a spray can propellants rise into the air when released and eat holes in the upper atmosphere’s ozone layer, which protects all life on earth from the dangerous and carcinogenic ultraviolet rays that are constantly emitted by the sun. Scientists finally discovered the truth about CFCs in the mid-1970s, and a concerted effort to phase them out of existence was begun soon after. CFC use internationally has shrunk significantly over the last three decades, and by 2015 it is expected that the type of CFC currently being used in air conditioners — called Freon — will become all but unavailable before disappearing completely from the marketplace by 2020.
As bad as Freon is for the upper atmosphere, however, it is even worse for the human body. Freon is a toxic substance that could conceivably kill someone exposed to it in an instant; and yet, amazingly, there are tens of thousands of people throughout the U.S., mostly teenagers, who are inhaling this dangerous and potentially deadly gas in order to experience its intoxicating effects. Since the subject is not being discussed much in the media, most are probably unaware that such activity is taking place. But over the next calendar year somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people will be rushed to hospital emergency rooms across the U.S. suffering from the symptoms of Freon poisoning — and some of may never return home again.
Stolen gases, stolen futures
In recent years, air conditioning repairmen and service technicians have been reporting mysterious Freon losses in malfunctioning units they have been called on to fix. But this phenomenon is not related to leaks or mechanical failure. Instead, this Freon is disappearing because it is being stolen, siphoned off in the dead of night by burglars intent on acquiring supplies of a substance that has great value on the underground drug market.
The toxic nature of this potentially lethal gas is hardly a secret, but the recklessness of those who are seeking to get high no matter what, often knows no bounds. No one is certain how the use of Freon as an intoxicant got started, but once it began the word of its dubious “benefits” spread quickly, and suddenly the inhalation of this ozone-depleting gas moved from a fringe activity to a full-fledged national fad.
Freon huffing, as it is called, involves the inhalation of the gas from a plastic bag that is placed entirely over the head. Freon as an intoxicant works by driving oxygen out of the bloodstream, and it is this oxygen-depleted state that is responsible for the light-headed feelings of giddiness that huffers come to crave so desperately. But whether users realize it or not, the effects of this frigid gas on a living organism are biologically devastating, and anyone who willingly puts this substance in his or her body is playing with a cold, killing fire.
Just how common Freon huffing is at this moment is unknown, but the thousands of young people who are showing up in emergency rooms after imbibing would seem to indicate that its usage has become relatively widespread. While the high that huffers allegedly experience may explain the rise in popularity of Freon in part, it is virtually certain that peer pressure is also playing some role here, as young people with fragile self-esteem frequently feel a need to prove their fearlessness when immersed in peer group settings.
Inhaling the breath of death
The extreme danger of Freon huffing is obvious from the side effects users and medical professionals treating its victims have reported:
- Severe throat pain
- Burning of lips, mouth, nose, tongue, eyes
- Vomiting (often bloody)
- Burning of the esophagus
- Severe abdominal pain
- Abnormal heart rhythms
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Bloody stool
- Freezing of the lungs
- Circulatory collapse
- Brain damage
- Cardiac arrest
From a statistical standpoint, the fatality rate from Freon huffing is not high, as perhaps two or three individuals in the U.S. will lose their lives as a result of this practice each year. But as the above list clearly shows, Freon has the potential to cause almost incalculable damage in the human body, and anyone who consumes it is putting their long-term health at serious risk.
We can only hope that as Freon is phased out of use over the next few years, interest in its capacity to act as an intoxicant will decline in tandem with its increasing scarcity (and the inevitable rise in price that will accompany that scarcity). But the inhaling of chemical poisons for their intoxicating effects is a disturbing societal trend, and while Freon huffing may eventually fade away like many other fads, it is virtually guaranteed that something similar will come along to take its place.