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Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2004;30(1):155-65.

Epidemiology of volatile substance abuse (VSA) cases reported to US poison centers.

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Kentucky Regional Poison Center of Kosair Children's Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.


Volatile substance abuse (VSA) is believed to be widespread. The Toxic Exposure Surveillance System (TESS) of the American Association of Poison Control Systems offers an opportunity to evaluate the epidemiology of volatile substance abuse using a data set that captures data from a large geographic area covering a wide-ranging group of socioeconomic strata, ethnic groups, and demographics. To utilize this potential we analyzed a data set of TESS for the 6-year period of 1996 through 2001 involving all cases of intentional inhalational abuse of nonpharmaceutical substances. Over the study period there was a mean annual decline of 9% of reported VSA with an overall decline of 37% from 1996 to 2001. Volatile substance abuse was reported primarily in children, with 6358 cases (54%) in children 13-19 yr and 1803 (15%) cases in children 6-12 yr. Fifty-two cases were reported in children < 5 or = 5 yr. A total of 2330 (20%) VSA cases had a serious outcome, defined as either moderate effect (n = 2000), major effect (n = 267), or death (n = 63). The top five categories of substances abused were gasoline (41%), paint (13%), propane/butane (6%), air fresheners (6%), and formalin (5%). Three categories were responsible for the majority of deaths: gasoline (45%), air fresheners (26%), and propane/butane (11%). While there was a decline in reported cases, there was no decline in major outcomes or fatalities. Volatile substance abuse was reported in all 50 states, with case distribution similar to population distribution. However, seven states had > 2 times the expected rate based on their population; three western states, two midwestern states, and two Appalachian states. The role of urban vs. rural population may possibly explain the difference in numbers, with a greater incidence of VSA cases reported in states with large rural populations. The mean monthly occurrence rate was 162 VSA cases/month (S.D. +/- 10.85). There were 4 months that were > 2 standard deviations from the mean, with two peak months (May, 192/month and March, 187/month) and two trough months (December, 126/month and January, 137/month). This report presents a broad picture of VSA in the United States. Volatile substance abuse, as reported to U.S. poison centers, appears to be on the decline, but continues to be an ongoing problem. Volatile substance abuse is reported throughout the U.S. in all areas of the country, with a higher incidence in states with large rural populations. A small group of substances appears responsible for the majority of deaths. It is imperative that we continue to educate the public and healthcare professionals regarding the risks of VSA and hopefully impact the incidence of VSA.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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