Intended for healthcare professionals

Research Article

Deaths from abuse of volatile substances: a national epidemiological study.

Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1985; 290 doi: (Published 26 January 1985) Cite this as: Br Med J (Clin Res Ed) 1985;290:304
  1. H R Anderson,
  2. R S Macnair,
  3. J D Ramsey


    A survey of the United Kingdom detected 282 deaths from abuse of volatile substances during 1971-83. Deaths appeared to have increased in the most recent years, reaching 80 in 1983. Age at death ranged from 11 to 76 years but most deaths (72%) occurred under 20 years. Ninety five per cent of the subjects were male, and in 1983 deaths from volatile substance abuse accounted for 2% of all deaths in males aged 10-19. All areas of the United Kingdom were affected, the rates being highest in Scotland and urban areas. All social classes were affected, though rates were highest in social class V and the armed forces. The volatile substances abused were gas fuels (24%), mainly butane; aerosol sprays (17%); solvents in glues (27%); and other volatile substances, such as cleaning agents (31%). In 51% of cases death was attributed to the direct toxic effects of the substance abused, in 21% to plastic bag asphyxia, in 18% to inhalation of stomach contents, and in 11% to trauma. Deaths associated with the abuse of glues were more likely to be traumatic, but all substances appeared capable of killing directly by their toxic effects, probably by a cardiac mechanism. Only a small proportion of deaths (6%) were due to the abuse of glues among children under 16; hence current attempts to limit access of children to glues will probably have little impact on overall mortality.