Petrol Sniffing Fact File

Petrol SniffingPetrol sniffing is a major source of illness, death and social dysfunction in Indigenous communities - fuelled by poverty, boredom unemployment and the ready availability of petrol. Unfortunately, there's no magic wand solution, though substitution of petrol for non-sniffable OPAL fuel has made a difference in some communities.

by Sheree Cairney

"...petrol blackbella, chuck im la bin
We are all one blackbella, have strong culture, strong future
Our lives are filled with culture, music and dancing, we always sing about our country
You were given two names, an English name and a Bush name. That Bush name means that you have got to be strong"

- Yilila with the Numbulwar School Bands, Numbulwar NT


Since ancient times, people have inhaled the fumes of different chemicals like incense, oils, resins, burning spices and perfumes to alter consciousness or as part of religious ceremonies. The first report of people sniffing petrol to get 'high' was in the US in 1934. After that people realised they could also get high from sniffing all sorts of household products that contained volatile fumes: glue, aerosols, chrome-based paint, paint thinner, cleaning fluids and lighter fluids.

American servicemen stationed in the Top End of Australia during the Second World War are thought to have first introduced petrol sniffing to the local Aboriginal people. The practice then spread to many other Aboriginal communities across Australia where it continues to be a major source of sickness, death and social dysfunction.

Although the abuse of other volatile substances like lighter fluid and glue is common in many developed countries, petrol sniffing seems to occur mainly among Indigenous groups in remote regions in Canada, America, Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific Islands. The reasons these people sniff petrol are probably similar to the reasons people abuse other drugs in other places. It's just that in remote communities, petrol is cheap and easy to get, while other drugs are harder to access. The social disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia may also contribute to the problem of petrol sniffing in these communities.

What is petrol?

Petrol comes from crude oil and is a mixture of organic hydrocarbons like toluene and benzene. These hydrocarbons are quickly absorbed by the body and the brain and make sniffers feel high. Many of the other volatile substances that people sniff, like glue and paint, contain one or more of these hydrocarbons. Different hydrocarbons may have slightly different effects but petrol is a complex mix of many different hydrocarbons and the combination varies considerably between different sources of petrol. This makes it difficult to understand exactly how the different chemicals in petrol contribute to its health effects.

Although leaded petrol is no longer available, unleaded petrol still contains small traces of lead. The lead is said to make the hallucinogenic effect stronger. Lead is absorbed by bone and fat in the brain and body and can stay there for 10 years. Over this time it continues to be released back into the body even after sniffing stops. This means people who have sniffed leaded petrol in the past may still have lots of lead in their body.

Short-term effects

People inhale through the mouth or nose using either a cloth soaked in petrol or a small container filled with petrol. Petrol goes from the lungs to the bloodstream and then into the brain. There it slows down brain activity and depresses the central nervous system in a similar way to alcohol. Within seconds the person can feel euphoric, relaxed, dizzy, numb and light. They may also experience:

  • hallucinations
  • aggression
  • increased libido
  • hunger
  • lack of coordination, staggering
  • disorientation
  • slurred speech
  • coughing, wheezing
  • vomiting
  • slow reflexes

They may look like someone who is drunk on alcohol but act a bit more strangely. Sometimes you can smell the strong odour of petrol on them. These effects can last up to an hour, and longer if they keep sniffing. In serious cases people may have fits.

It is possible to die from sniffing the first time because the petrol is taking the place of oxygen in the blood and not enough oxygen is being taken to the brain. People have died this way from sniffing with a jumper or blanket around their head because it stops oxygen getting to the lungs.

People have died from doing exercise like running or playing football straight after sniffing. The combined stress of sniffing and exercise put too much pressure on the heart.

Many people who sniff have suffered serious burns or death because the petrol caught fire. Sniffing around any flames or fire is very dangerous.

Long-term effects

The list of health problems caused by sniffing is enormous. The poisonous chemicals in petrol gradually damage the brain, the heart, the lungs, the immune system, the liver and kidneys. The longer a person sniffs, the worse they damage these organs.

Over the first few years of sniffing petrol, people will begin to show signs of brain damage that will affect their ability to think clearly, concentrate, remember things, learn new things and solve problems. If the sniffing continues, the part of the brain that controls movement and balance gets damaged and the person can't walk and talk properly. Many sniffers end up in a wheelchair with permanent brain damage. Some of the brain damage caused by sniffing can repair itself if the person stops sniffing, but the longer they sniff, the less chance there is that the brain will get better.

Sniffing also leads to behavioural and social problems and sniffers often get in trouble with the law for vandalism, violence, robbery, rape and sexual promiscuity. They find it difficult to stay at school and hold down jobs.

Sniffing while pregnant can cause birth defects such as physical and intellectual disabilities and may also stop the brain from developing properly.

What's being done?

Australian Government organisations have been criticised for being slow to act in response to the growing petrol sniffing epidemic. In response to rallying from various groups, the first coronial inquest into Aboriginal deaths from petrol sniffing was conducted in 1998 and the most recent in 2005. These inquests successfully increased government and public awareness about the devastation caused by petrol sniffing and the need for intervention.

Working together, the Northern Territory, South Australian and Western Australian governments are making it an offence to sell or supply petrol for sniffing. In some places petrol has been replaced by fuel that you can't sniff like Aviation gas (AvGas) or the new OPAL fuel which has successfully cut down or stopped sniffing in those areas. OPAL fuel contains very low levels of the hydrocarbons that make sniffers feel high. Currently, the commonwealth government has subsidised the introduction of OPAL fuel into 70 different Aboriginal communities and community groups are rallying for a more extensive roll-out of the 'non-sniffable' fuel.

Recent commonwealth initiatives also include the development of rehabilitation programs and treatment centres, education programs, increased policing and community support. In addition, the Northern Territory has recently introduced a Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act in which petrol or other inhalants can be seized from sniffers, and sniffers can be entered into rehabilitation programs involuntarily.

Although interventions such as education and controlling supply may reduce the burden somewhat, one report shows nearly all petrol sniffers think they will die as a result of sniffing and yet they keep sniffing. The reasons why these people have lost their will to live needs to be addressed before the social devastation caused by petrol sniffing can be alleviated altogether.

There are, however, many positive and inspiring stories where communities have come up with ways to stop people from sniffing petrol in their communities. The most successful programs have been coordinated approaches involving families, elders, police, health organisations and government organisations.

Still there is no healthy way to sniff. Sniffing causes serious health problems and can kill you.

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