An introduction to the practice, prevalence and chemical toxicology of volatile substance abuse

Hum Toxicol. 1989 Jul;8(4):261-9. doi: 10.1177/096032718900800403.


1. Volatile substance abuse is largely a teenage practice; it is estimated that in the UK 3.5-10% of young people have at least experimented and that 0.5-1% are current users. 2. The products abused are many and varied but only about 20 chemical compounds, notably toluene, chlorinated solvents such as 1,1,1-trichloroethane, fuel gases such as butane and aerosol propellants, are commonly encountered. 3. The acute hazard varies with the compound, product and mode of abuse. Mortality in the UK is now about 100 per year, from all social classes, 90% of whom are male. 4. Chronic toxicity is difficult to assess, partly because of the diversity of products abused. However it is clear that some long-term abusers suffer permanent damage to the central nervous system, heart, liver and kidney. 5. Toxicological analysis may be relied upon for confirmation of diagnosis, providing attention is paid to the kinetics of excretion and stability in the sample. 6. Responses include codes of practice for the sale of products and educational strategies; legislation has also been enacted. There is little evidence that any of these measures have made a significant impact on the problem.

MeSH terms

  • Adhesives / toxicity
  • Adolescent
  • Aerosols / toxicity
  • Anesthetics / toxicity
  • Butanes / toxicity
  • Gasoline / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Hydrocarbons, Chlorinated / toxicity
  • Legislation as Topic
  • Propane / toxicity
  • Solvents / toxicity*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Toluene / toxicity
  • United Kingdom
  • Xylenes / toxicity


  • Adhesives
  • Aerosols
  • Anesthetics
  • Butanes
  • Gasoline
  • Hydrocarbons, Chlorinated
  • Solvents
  • Xylenes
  • Toluene
  • Propane