Gasoline is a liquid refined from crude oil that contains more than 500 chemical compounds. In terms of its potential for intentional abuse, it belongs to a varied group of substances known collectively as inhalants.
People abuse inhalants in order to gain access to cheap “highs” that are commonly available within the limits of existing law. The chemicals found in gasoline belong to a group of compounds called hydrocarbons.
Purposeful inhalation of these chemicals can produce a range of severe or fatal short- and long-term effects, including organ damage, cancer, and a phenomenon called sudden sniffing death syndrome.
The Basics of Inhalant Use
Hydrocarbons are chemicals that contain only the two elements hydrogen and carbon; the compounds in this group differ from one another only in terms of the number of hydrogen or carbon atoms they contain, and the specific arrangement of those atoms within the chemical structure. Specific hydrocarbons contained in gasoline include substances called benzene and toluene. Apart from its hydrocarbon content, gasoline also frequently contains a variety of additives, including substances called ethylene glycol, ethanol, methanol, and tertiary butyl alcohol (TBA). Each of these chemicals produces harmful effects on human health, especially when intentionally introduced to the body through inhalation.
Inhalant use tends to occur among the young and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Gasoline inhalation, in particular, occurs in isolated areas away from major population centers, according to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. As a rule, people who abuse gasoline (or other hydrocarbon-containing inhalants) introduce fumes into their systems through direct nasal inhalation (sniffing), placement of a gasoline-soaked rag over the mouth and/or nose (huffing), or inhalation of fumes gathered up inside some sort of deflatable bag (bagging). The effects of inhalation resemble those associated with drunkenness. They typically reach their maximum intensity in a matter of minutes, but remain present to one degree or another for a period of several hours.
According to a study published in 2009 in BMC Physiology, gasoline exposure significantly alters normal chemical levels in several different brain areas, including the cerebral cortex, which acts as the center for higher-level consciousness; the cerebellum, which helps control and coordinate body movements; the hippocampus, which acts as the major center for memory storage and organization; and the hypothalamus, which helps control a variety of involuntary nerve functions. Potential consequences of these alterations include vomiting, brain cell damage or death, loss of normal body control, involuntary muscle tremors, and severe disruption of general function in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). These problems typically occur in people who intentionally inhale gasoline fumes, not in people who accidentally inhale them. Additional potential forms of organ damage include damage to the bone marrow, kidney damage, liver damage and burns to the lungs and other parts of the upper airways.
The bone marrow effects associated with gasoline abuse come mainly from the effects of the hydrocarbon benzene. Benzene produces these effects by preventing normal formation of oxygen-bearing red blood cells and damaging the parts of the marrow responsible for creating antibodies and white blood cells, which together play vital roles in the body’s immune system. In addition to triggering a red blood cell disorder called aplastic anemia, benzene-related alterations in the bone marrow can significantly increase a gasoline abuser’s long-term risks for developing the blood cell cancer known as leukemia.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome
The hydrocarbons in gasoline can make the heart muscle unusually sensitive to the effects of naturally occurring substances in the body called epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), Medscape Reference explains. When people abusing gasoline (or any other inhalant rich in hydrocarbons) are startled either during active inhalation or in the period immediately following inhalation, they can develop severe, unexpected changes in the normal heart rhythms (known medically as arrhythmias). In turn, these heart rhythm changes can trigger the onset of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which involves a complete stoppage of normal heart function.
Gasoline-related brain damage can result in loss of overall brain size, as well as a reduced capacity for communication between various parts of the brain. Pregnant women who intentionally inhale gasoline expose their developing fetuses to toluene, which can produce a variety of birth defects that closely resemble the defects associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. Lung injuries related to gasoline inhalation may include hemorrhages, abnormal fluid accumulation, and loss of the ability to properly pass oxygen into the bloodstream.
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