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Tackling volatile substance abuse in Scotland
a training course for the social care workforce

Course content: Substance recognition


aerosol spray can

Aerosol spray includes butane propellant in addition to the product

Almost any aerosol has the potential for abuse; this is because aerosols (with some exceptions — see below) use butane as a propellant. It is the propellant rather than the product that gives the effect. As a result of their effect on greenhouse gases, CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons) have been replaced with butane gas and now this propellant is used in almost all aerosols. Both CFCs and butane are potentially abusable.

Methods of use

‘I have seen young people taking aerosols through a towel, you know, spray it into the towel and then breathe in and breathe out. The rush lasts for about ten to fifteen seconds depending on how much you take … I know all this from reading leaflets and watching my friend.’

Quote from a young person looked after in a residential home

The abuse of aerosols often involves towels, socks, rags or tissue paper, which are used as filters. Items used in this way would be seeped in the product and may have white rings formed from the particulate content.

Sometimes aerosols are sprayed into a plastic bag where the product separates out from the propellant. Some products can be abused by inverting the can.

There were 365 deaths from the abuse of aerosols between 1971 and 2004.1 Deodorants were associated with the most deaths, followed by pain relief sprays, air fresheners and hairsprays. Deaths have also resulted from the abuse of cleaning products and insect sprays.

Johnson Wax uses an air-propelled aerosol for some of their products. A practical difficulty in using air as a propellant is that the pressure decreases through the life of the aerosol.

Solvent based glue

PVA glue tube

PVA glue contains no solvents and cannot cause intoxication when sniffed, it does however emit a strong ammonia smell

Solvent-based adhesives usually contain toluene as the main solvent. They may also contain a range of other solvents and they are usually inhaled from a plastic bag or other container.

The most common solvent-based adhesives are impact (or contact) adhesives (these can be purchased in very large containers), clear glues, model glues, or bicycle puncture repair glues (usually in small tubes).

Death, risk of suffocation on a plastic bag, inhalation of vomit, or trauma are all possible consequences. Long-term glue sniffers may suffer brain damage or damage to other organs. Much of this is reversible once sniffing stops.

Glue sticks to the clothing, hair or face and when in contact with the skin for some time it causes burns. Many, but not all, solvents are flammable. Usually there is a flammable sign on the container. Oil of mustard (Mustard gas) has been added on occasions to solvent-based adhesives. It makes it difficult to work with, especially if it is used commercially, e.g. Formica lamination.

There are water-based alternatives, which are widely used in industry. They require more drying time and are more difficult to use. Superglue contains cyanoacrylate and cannot be sniffed.

Typewriter correction fluid

Many, but not all, now contain relatively heavy solvents. This means that they have little intoxicating effect. There are dry and water-based alternatives. The water-based versions have proved unpopular with users as they make the paper uneven.


There were 34 petrol deaths between 1971 and 2004. Re-Solv's records include a number of petrol related burning incidents. This may be because petrol fumes are relatively heavy and do not dissipate very quickly and it is often taken from large containers with a high risk of spilling.

Petrol is a mixture of hydrocarbons and some of these are potentially carcinogenic although Re-Solv has found no reported cases where a connection has been made. If the lungs come into contact with liquid petrol, they produce large amounts of fluid, which can slowly fill the lungs and so can be very dangerous.

Substance recognition – key points

Course content » next section » Risks

  1. Ramsey, J. et al. (2006) Trends in Deaths Associated with Abuse by Volatile Substance 1971-2004 London: St George’s Hospital Medical School.

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