DECORAH | Kellie Sharp, 16, of Decorah, died Aug. 23, one family's tragedy that did not have to happen.
She was sitting on a rock wall at a scenic overlook in Palisades Park and took a "hit" from compressed air. Sharp leaned back and fell about 50 feet, according to Police Chief Bill Nixon.
Autopsy results confirmed difluoroethane in the girl’s body. Canned air, commonly used to dust off sensitive equipment, such as computers, usually contains either that compound or tetrafluoroethane.
"I’m assuming it had an immediate effect and caused her to lose balance. That’s one of the symptoms of an inhalant -- the loss of motor control," Nixon says.
"Some things are not preventable. Some things you have no control over," he adds.
This was different. This was a choice.
Kellie's mother, Heather Sharp of Lisbon, declined to talk about the incident. But she asked Nixon to relay what happened to her daughter.
"She wanted the opportunity to share this information with other parents so Kellie’s death wouldn’t have been for nothing," Nixon says.
Inhaling aerosols to get high -- known as "huffing" -- likely happens more frequently than law enforcement officials hear about, according to Nixon.
"It’s probably occurring in the privacy of a home or in locations where we’re not likely going to encounter them," he adds.
Many products routinely available in stores represent a very accessible way to get high. While parents may be watchful for signs children are using alcohol or a controlled substance, they may miss indications of huffing, according to Nixon.
"If they see a can of Dust Off in their kid’s backpack, they should be very suspicious and ask questions," he says.
Because chemicals are absorbed through the lungs into a person's bloodstream and distributed quickly to the brain and other organs, effects can be severe.
"Within minutes, the user experiences feelings of intoxication and may become dizzy, have headaches, abdominal pain, limb spasms, lack of coordination, loss of control, hallucinations and impaired judgment," Nixon says.
You have free articles remaining.
Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome can strike even first-time users. One explanation is death occurs because of heart failure resulting from an irregular heartbeat usually caused by stress or strenuous activity after using an inhalant.
Long-term users can suffer from muscle weakness, inattentiveness, lack of coordination, irritability and depression. They might also experience damage to their liver, kidneys and central nervous system.
Warning signs of abuse include hidden, chemical-soaked rags or clothes; red or runny eyes and nose; a loss of appetite or nausea; and paint or chemical stains on the face or fingers. Products that can be abused include spray paint, hairspray, air fresheners, room deodorizers, glue, gas and nail polish remover, but the entire list includes more than 1,400 common items.
A user often does not realize what they are inhaling if abusing canned air, according to Nixon.
"They think it’s just air, oxygen. 'That’s not going to hurt me,'" he says.
To prevent abuse, many businesses require those buying canned air to be at least 18 years old. Some manufacturers also add a "bittering agent" to make their product taste bad.
Officer Scott Herrmann with the Decorah Police Department will incorporate information about aerosol abuse into presentations he offers health classes at the high school, according to Nixon. But parents must also educate themselves, the chief adds.
"Go to the Internet, Google inhalant abuse and learn something about it," he says.
While Iowa does not maintain a database to track inhalant abuse, Nixon says the state medical examiner’s office told him investigators looked into three or four deaths in the past four months involving inhalants.
Sharp was a junior at Decorah High School. She played clarinet in the band.
"Kellie was a nice kid, very active in music, and she was an excellent writer," Principal Kim Sheppard says.
"It’s pretty tough on everybody. Kellie is greatly missed," Sheppard adds.