Investigating Deaths from Inhalant Abuse
Written by Daniel Morgan   

INTENTIONAL INHALATION of chemical vapors for the purpose of “getting high” is a dangerous form of substance abuse known on the streets as “glading”, “dusting”, or “chroming”. This practice, more appropriately referred to as inhalant abuse or volatile substance abuse, has unpredictable effects on users. Chronic users accept adverse effects like nausea and diarrhea just to obtain a momentary sense of intoxication. To maintain the euphoric feeling, chemicals have to be inhaled repeatedly. This puts the user at greater risk of sudden death or permanent organ damage.

The investigation of these deaths is very challenging. In some cases, the person discovering the body could “sanitize” the scene by removing the inhalants prior to the arrival of first responders. Moreover, when inhalants are present at the scene, they are easily overlooked since commonly abused inhalants have other household uses. Investigations are further hampered by the fact that inhalants are not detected by typical urine drug screens or routine postmortem toxicology tests. Thus, the information gathered during the scene investigation is critical to an accurate determination of the cause and manner of death.

In addition to providing basic information about inhalant abuse, this article will discuss the physical evidence associated with inhalants and provide recommendations for the proper documentation and collection of that evidence.


Figure 1

Huffing is one of several techniques used to inhale chemical vapors; the others are spraying, sniffing, and bagging. The huffing method involves the application of a chemical to an absorbent material, such as a cloth or a sock, that is then held to the face or placed directly into the user’s mouth. Spraying refers to the direct spray of aerosol inhalant into the mouth. The sniffing method involves the inhalation of chemicals from an open container. With the bagging method, users capture the chemical inside a bag and then cover their nose and mouth with the bag and inhale concentrated vapors. Sometimes a balloon is used instead of a bag. A dangerous variation of bagging is called hooding (Figure 1)—when the user places a plastic bag over their head and sprays the chemical or gas within the bag or directly into their mouth. If the user falls asleep or loses consciousness, the plastic bag could adhere to their nose and mouth and occlude their airway. Simple awareness of these techniques will help an investigator identify these cases at the time of the scene investigation.

Potential inhalants come in a variety of forms and are widely available. The categories of inhalants are volatile solvents, aerosols, gasses, and nitrites. The inhalants that death-scene investigators are likely to encounter include compressed-air dust removers (“Dust-Off”), nitrous oxide (“whip-its”), spray cleaners or spot removers, air fresheners, gasoline, glue, and paint.

Unlike illicit or prescription drugs, inhalants are inexpensive and easy to obtain. Generally speaking, children and teenagers have the highest rate of inhalant abuse because of the availability, low cost, and ease of concealment. In many states, the use of inhalants has not been criminalized, but in the other states, large retailers utilize register systems that alert the cashier to ask for identification from persons under 18 years of age. Despite the restrictions, potential users can purchase or steal inhalants and avoid the risks associated with buying illegal drugs off the streets.

The abuse of inhalants is often a clandestine practice further disguised by witnesses who deny or diminish the decedent’s abuse problem. Death investigators can overcome these impediments by eliciting pertinent information from witnesses. Friends or family might unwittingly reveal the decedent’s abuse problem by acknowledging the presence of certain symptoms or behaviors. The most common symptoms associated with chronic inhalant use include coughing, sneezing, drowsiness, hallucinations, nosebleeds, and seizures. Behavioral side effects include aggression, disruptiveness, poor hygiene, violence, and a loss of inhibitions. A thorough interview with family and friends should disclose the first indications of inhalant abuse.


Figure 2

During the scene assessment, death investigators must recognize the red flags of inhalant use. Finding a chemical in proximity to the body is the primary scene indicator of an inhalant-related death (Figure 2). It is not uncommon to discover the inhalant underneath the body after the decedent collapsed with the item in hand.

An investigator’s suspicion ought to be heightened when chemicals are found outside normal storage areas. To avoid detection, users will routinely discard empty inhalants underneath their bed, in a closet, or under other items within their trashcan. If the decedent is a known abuser, patrol officers and investigators need to search the entire scene. Often, a person who discovers a friend’s body will “sanitize” the scene by removing any embarrassing or illegal items, such as drugs (inhalants) or pornography. An inspection of the decedent’s trash cans, both inside and outside the home, may yield relevant evidence. A collection of containers or aerosol cans is a major red flag. Plastic bags that contain liquid contents or spray paint are extremely suspicious for inhalant abuse.


Figure 3


Figure 4


Figure 5


Figure 6


Figure 7

Volatile substance use has its own unique paraphernalia that consists of paper (Figure 3) and plastic bags, balloons, rags, cloths, and straws or other plastic tubing. Whipped-cream dispensers and crackers are other objects of significance. A cracker is a small metal cylinder with threaded ends that are screwed together. The whipped-cream (nitrous oxide) charger is placed inside the body of the cracker and the cap is tightened until the charger is punctured and the gas is released. Investigators must also be aware of designer inhalants that are available for purchase at head shops. These chemicals come in small plastic or glass containers with brightly colored labels and catchy names like Rush, Liquid Gold, Hardware, and High-rise. Small containers are ideal for concealing. Known abusers will sometimes pour chemicals into smaller bottles or vials and keep it on their person at all times. The user can sniff the chemical directly from the container or huff it from a saturated cloth (Figure 4).

Once inhalant abuse is identified as a possible cause of death, the investigator needs to look for supporting physical evidence. Receipts for the recent purchase of chemicals are commonly found at the scene or in the decedent’s vehicle. Since nosebleeds are a side-effect of chronic use, investigators will frequently observe bloody tissues in the trash (Figure 5). Pornography or other sex-related objects are often used in conjunction with inhalants. Nitrites, found in air fresheners and fingernail-polish removers, are used to heighten sexual pleasure and may be encountered in autoerotic and other sexual activities.

Whenever possible, the decedent’s cell phone and computer should be examined. Photographs and outgoing text messages sometimes contain relevant information and the computer’s Internet history could show that the decedent searched for information about inhalants. Unfortunately, there are websites that report to provide guidelines for the selection and proper use of inhalants.

Intoxication from inhalants has contributed to numerous motor vehicle accidents (Figure 6). Persons using inhalants while driving may lose consciousness and drive off the road or collide with oncoming traffic. Witnesses typically report that the vehicle abruptly left the roadway. When advised of these circumstances, investigators should search for inhalants within the vehicle, on the body, and around the crash site. Always document potential inhalants found at the crash scene.

The physical evidence associated with inhalants must be documented and collected using specialized techniques. When applicable, begin by photographing the front of the container to capture the name of the product. The containers of most house-hold products have reflective surfaces, so do not use direct flash photography. Alternatively, use oblique-, bounce-, or diffused-flash techniques. An additional feature to photograph is the nozzle or opening of the container. Sometimes the user will alter or damage the nozzle for usability.

Transparent containers with liquid contents should be placed on a flat surface and photographed with a vertical scale in the image. If the liquid is volatile, it might evaporate before the specimen is analyzed, but at least you will have documented the presence of liquid. It is not usually necessary to photograph the ingredients panel because household cleaning chemicals are not required to list all ingredients. Instead, document the contact information for the manufacturer to obtain a full-disclosure Material Safety Data Sheet that lists all the ingredients. An excellent online database of household products with their ingredients can be found at www.householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov.

Never open a closed container or sniff the contents, and never transfer the liquid into a non-approved container. Solvents and gasoline can react with rubber or plastic containers and compromise the evidence. Spilled liquids near the container can be absorbed into a clean cloth or gauze pad and placed inside an unused airtight container like a metal paint can or glass jar (Figure 7). The proper handling of physical evidence will ensure an accurate and timely identification of the substance.

The human body may provide external indications of volatile substance abuse. Chronic inhalant users look like alcoholics because they may lose interest in personal hygiene. Other physical findings of inhalant use involve the face, hands, and clothing. Direct contact with chemicals or their vapors will dry and crack the delicate skin of the face and result in clusters of sores around the nose and mouth. Persons that sniff or huff paint are easily identified by the presence of paint on their face, hands, or clothing. Skin contact with certain chemicals results in blisters, frostbite, or burns. If the decedent was touching a refrigerant, such as chlorofluorocarbons (Freon), their hands and mouth might have frostbite or blisters. Stains or an odor on the decedent’s clothing can also indicate contact with chemicals. Another common finding with inhalant deaths is the presence of a “foam cone” or edema column (white or white-red froth) around the decedent’s nose and mouth. The presence of these external signs is suggestive of inhalant use.

Documentation and preservation of physical evidence on the body is vitally important to establishing the cause and manner of death. First and foremost, items attached to the body must never be removed prior to examination by a forensic pathologist. For instance, if a plastic bag is over the decedent’s head, it should be left in place so that the pathologist can study its arrangement on the head/neck and correlate any impressions. Further-more, the pathologist will inspect the bag for the presence of water droplets. Condensation on the inside of the bag suggests that the decedent was breathing with the bag over their face and the death was possibly caused by asphyxia. When photographing the condensation, use a lighting technique other than direct flash, because the bag is highly reflective.

Plastic bags are an excellent medium for developing latent prints. If the on-scene officer or detective suspects that someone else placed the bag over the decedent’s head, the officer should contact the pathologist and explain his/her concerns prior to removing the bag. The pathologist could provide guidance on how the bag should be documented. In the vast majority of cases, the pathologist will request that the bag stay in place until it can be examined. The law enforcement officer can collect the bag when it is removed during the pathologist’s external examination.

While at the scene, always document the presence of a foam cone around the decedent’s nose and mouth before moving the body. This type of evidence is fragile and easily lost when the body is rolled onto its side. In autoerotic cases, the apparatus can be quite complex. Never disconnect or remove any equipment from its connection to the body; always disconnect at the gas or chemical supply. Proper preservation of evidence on the body allows the pathologist to inspect the item(s) and develop appropriate forensic conclusions.

Death investigators, detectives, and patrol officers familiar with the signs and symptoms of inhalant use will readily recognize these cases at the time of the scene investigation. Although some cases are quickly identified, others go unnoticed because significant signs were overlooked.

The first indication of an inhalant-related death usually comes from interviews with the decedent’s family or friends. The best approach to interviewing is to begin by inquiring about the decedent’s recent behaviors and symptoms rather than direct questions about their substance abuse problem, as this is a potential source of humiliation for the family. Even when witnesses are forthcoming about the decedent’s inhalant abuse, the person discovering the body will occasionally sanitize or alter the scene by discarding embarrassing items that are relevant to the cause and manner of death.

The paraphernalia, as previously discussed, is distinctive to volatile substance abuse. Small containers with liquid contents, saturated cloths, and collections of empty aerosol cans are investigative red flags. Sales receipts and bloody tissues are expected findings at the death scene of a chronic user. The body will also provide indications of inhalant use. Facial sores, odors, blisters, and burns suggest contact with chemicals. Physical evidence on the body needs to be properly documented and preserved prior to moving the corpse.

By following the above recommendations for evidence documentation and collection, the death investigator ensures that the substances are identified in a timely manner. When patrol officers and investigators possess basic knowledge of inhalants and its associated physical evidence, their investigative findings should be confirmed by the autopsy and postmortem toxicology.

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is a board-certified Medicolegal Death Investigator with the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Cleveland, Ohio. The author has a master’s degree in Forensic Science and extensive training in death and crime scene investigation. The author was previously employed as a Supervisory Investigator with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, Texas.

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