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Review of volatile substance use among Indigenous people

What are volatile substances?

Volatile substances are chemicals that give off fumes at room temperature. They are also called 'inhalants' because they are breathed (inhaled) through the mouth and nose [1]. Volatile substances are a type of psychoactive drug. Psychoactive drugs are drugs taken for pleasure that act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel or act. Intoxication (being under the influence) through the use of volatile substances reduces the ability of the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) to function. The effects of a volatile substance are felt quickly after inhaling because the large surface area of the lungs allows the blood to quickly transport it to the brain within minutes of use. This causes the level of the drug in the blood to be at its highest point very quickly [2].

What types of volatile substances are there?

There are around 250 household, medical and industrial products that contain volatile substances that can be used act on the brain to alter the way we think, feel or act [1]. Many of these are easily available.

Volatile substances are usually classified into four groups [3]:

The most commonly used volatile substances are everyday items including: glues; spray paints; petrol; gas from cigarette lighters; acetone in nail polish remover; varnish; bottled fuel; and aerosol propellants.

What are the effects of inhaling volatile substances?

Inhalation of volatile substances produces a variety of short-term effects [4]. The effects are experienced within a few minutes and only last for a short time, usually less than an hour. In some cases, volatile substance use can cause serious long term effects, even death. The effects of volatile substances are shown below in Table 1.

Table 1: Short-term, long-term and pregnancy effects of volatile substance use
Progressive short term effects (low to high dose)Long term or chronic effectsPregnancy effects
Source: Adapted from d'Abbs P, Maclean S, 2008 [1] and Parliament of Victoria, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee, 2002 [4]
  • feeling of wellbeing
  • disinhibition (improper behaviour)
  • hallucinations (visions)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • drowsiness (feeling tired)
  • confusion
  • aggression (anger and violence)
  • slurred speech
  • loss of coordination
  • blurred vision
  • loss of consciousness
  • death
Other immediate effects can include:
  • headache
  • abdominal (stomach) pain
  • hyper-salivation (over-production of spit)
  • palpitations (abnormal heartbeat)
  • red, watery eyes
  • nosebleeds
  • indigestion
  • dizziness
  • frequent cough
  • lack of energy
  • shortness of breath
  • tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
  • angina (temporary chest pain)
  • stomach ulcers
  • chronic headache
  • sinusitis (inflammation of the area around the nose)
  • attention, memory and problem solving
  • depression
  • ataxia (gross lack of coordination of muscle movements)
  • irreversible neurological (brain) damage
  • seizures and epilepsy (fitting)
  • loss of hearing and sight
  • loss of feeling
  • damage to the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys
  • reduced bone density (strength)
  • some forms of cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • spontaneous abortion (loss of baby)
  • congenital malformation (birth defects)
  • low birth weight
  • developmental delay
  • behavioural issues in later life

There are also large financial costs associated with VSU for the wider Australian community. In 2005, the estimated total cost of petrol sniffing in Central Australia was $78.9 million, the majority of which related to the costs associated with ill-health caused by VSU ($38.1 million) and those associated with crime ($16.2 million) [5].

What is known about hospitalisation and deaths?

At present, there is no thorough collection of data about VSU-associated mortality (deaths) or morbidity (serious injury and hospitalisation) in Australia [1]. This is because users typically present to health facilities with illnesses ( for example, pneumonia) or injuries (for example, burns) caused by VSU, but the hospital records only reflect the specific illness or injury.

Similarly in the case of deaths, the practice is to list the medical explanation of the cause of death rather than the use of volatile substances that led to it [4]. For example, the cause of death of a petrol sniffer may be recorded as asphyxiation (suffocation) rather than the petrol sniffing that precipitated the asphyxiation.

The following facts represent the best summary of what is known at a national and state level about mortality and morbidity due to VSU:

There is more information available at a regional level on deaths associated with petrol sniffing, and in all cases those who died were Indigenous [1][9]. What is currently known about regional level mortality due to VSU includes:


According to available evidence, the use of volatile substances – especially petrol sniffing – among the Indigenous population is much higher that of the non-Indigenous population. The use of volatile substances has major impacts on Indigenous people, families, communities and the wider Australian community.

It is important to develop policy and practice to address volatile substance use among Indigenous people. The much greater disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people in the areas of education, employment, income, and housing are important contributors to the use of volatile substances. Reducing volatile substance use and its impacts requires a holistic approach addressing this disadvantage. Programs addressing volatile substance use should be operated in combination with a range of general programs aimed at ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous people and other Australians in the areas of education, employment, income and housing.


  1. d'Abbs P, Maclean S (2008) Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions. Barton, ACT: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing
  2. Wille SMR, Lambert WEE (2004) Volatile substance abuse—post-mortem diagnosis. Forensic Science International; 142(2-3): 135-156
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse (2005) Research report series – inhalant abuse. Maryland: National Institute on Drug Abuse
  4. Parliament of Victoria Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee (2002) Inquiry into the inhalation of volatile substances: final report. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria
  5. Access Economics (2006) Opal cost benefit analysis. Canberra: The Opal Alliance
  6. Stoové M, Jenkinson R, Matthews S, Dietze P, Laslett AM, Clemens S, Cvetkovski S, Barratt M, McElwee P (2005) Victorian drug statistics handbook 2005: patterns of drug use and related harm in Victoria. Melbourne: Victorian Government Publishing Service
  7. National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce (2006) National directions on inhalant abuse: final report. Melbourne: Victorian Government Department of Human Services
  8. National Drug Abuse Information Centre (1988) Deaths due to volatile substance abuse. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service
  9. Shaw G, Biven A, Gray D, Mosey A, Stearne A, Perry J (2004) An evaluation of the Comgas scheme: they sniffed it and they sniffed it but it just wasn't there. Canberra: Department of Health and Ageing
  10. South Australian Centre for Economic Studies (2010) Cost benefit analysis of legislation to mandate the supply of opal fuel in regions of Australia: final report. Adelaide: Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing

© Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet 2013 
This product, excluding the Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet logo, artwork, and any material owned by a third party or protected by a trademark, has been released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) licence. Excluded material owned by third parties may include, for example, design and layout, images obtained under licence from third parties and signatures.

Last updated: 20 March 2014
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