Volatile substances inhaled during chroming may ‘dissolve the brain’

Health officials are warning that the practice of chroming – inhaling solvents or other household chemicals – can have irreversible impacts on vital organs, including the brain. The warning comes after health professionals noticed a rise in the number of young children using the volatile substances in Brisbane, Queensland.

Aerosol cans - used for chromingoptimarc | Shutterstock

Director of Brisbane's Biala Community Health Service, Jeremy Hallyer, told ABC News that he has become the issue of volatile substance abuse has become increasingly apparent over the last six months:

"I am aware that there does seem to be an increased number of very young kids who are running around the [Brisbane] CBD under the influence of solvents or inhalants.”

A recent increase in the number of deaths in Queensland also prompted the Queensland Police Service to carry out a two-week long community awareness project.

“Dissolving” the brain

The volatile substances found in inhalants generally act as depressants due to their effect on the central nervous system.

Once exposed to air, the compounds become vaporized and once inhaled, they are absorbed from the blood into fatty tissue and are taken up by the brain. The compounds are all very lipid-soluble, meaning they can easily get into the brain and effectively start “dissolving it.”

All volatile substances are taken up very quickly in the brain and change the way that messages are sent around the brain. That can lead to loss of consciousness… and later on the effects can be progressive."

Jeremy Hallyer

Hayllar has previously likened the impact on the central nervous system to "dipping your brain in detergent," but now he has updated that analogy: "Imagine something made of plastic; now let's say you heat it up and it kind of loses its shape and form. We could make the same analogy with the effects of solvent on the brain.”

Hayllar adds that people who use the solvents on a daily basis are really damaging their brain development and future prospects.

Children as young as nine are engaging in ‘chroming’

Social workers have reported seeing children as young as nine engaging in chroming, although children generally tend to be aged between 12 and 14.

The inhalants can affect vital organs such as the liver, kidneys, and in particular, the brain. Users begin to lose sensation in their hands and feet, as well as losing coordination and thinking capacity. The worst-case scenario is death, which can happen quite quickly.

"It certainly sounds extreme, but I don't think it is uncommon … things can go wrong when you're not awake enough to protect your airway," explains Hayllar.

The solvents can damage the heart, the conduction tissue of the heart, leading to arrythmia and heart damage in that way … there is very wide range of effects and many of them can happen quite early."

Jeremy Hallyer

Exacerbating underlying problems

People often tend to chrome as a way of easing the symptoms of another problem such as an undiagnosed mental illness or difficult emotions and mood swings. However, volatile substance abuse can make such problems worse and actually amplify feelings of vulnerability or anxiety, for example.

Maree Teesson, from the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, says that on first use, the inhalants often trigger an increase in brain neurotransmitters:

"Then over time, you get the brain habituating to that and then after a while you tend to need the drug to have the production of those chemicals in the brain so you develop into this vicious cycle."

Wayne Hall from the University of Queensland's Centre for Youth Substance Abuse Research says young people often turn to drugs as a coping mechanism. He added that a lot of people who get involved in volatile substance use, particularly heavy use, are at an increased risk for neurological complications:

"The intoxication wouldn't help their coping and wouldn't help a lot of the problems that led them to use in the first place … to cope with feeling bad, depressed, anxious and so on."

Hall points out that the exact effects on such underlying problems depend on the chemicals inside the chroming products,  but that many studies have found that users put themselves at an increased risk for mental disorders.

He also warns that the inhalants often become a "gateway" to illicit substances: "Often the young people who are using these products end up using a lot of other things as well so it adds to a pretty nasty cocktail.”

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.

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