The coroner’s report after the death of Aaron Carter, 34, was published last week. The singer and one-time teen heartthrob was found by a housekeeper at his home in California last November. In a tragic case of misadventure, he’d “accidentally drowned in his bathtub because of drugs he had taken”.
What drugs had he taken? Xanax for a start, a benzodiazepine that is really popular in North America. But also “difluoroethane” which the report said was “a gas commonly used as a propellant in air spray cleaners” which “can induce feelings of euphoria when inhaled”. In other words, Carter had taken some Xanax, got in the bath and huffed some cheap gas from a household product.
If you’re on something like Xanax, the bath is probably the least safe place you can be in your house; this is a drug that stops you being anxious by slowing down your central nervous system, meaning sleep is not usually far away. You don’t want to be falling asleep where you can drown. More Americans die from accidents in the bath than they do from terrorism, but there’s no multi-billion dollar budget for a “War on Baths”, is there?
What happens to your brain when you huff gas containing difluoroethane? “It works on the glutamate and GABA receptors in the brain,” Professor David Nutt, the chair of Drug Science, the UK’s leading independent scientific body researching drugs and their use, told THE FACE. “It’s relatively harmful, more so than other gases such as nitrous oxide [nos].” He added: “In England and Wales, from 2001 to 2020, there were 716 deaths from inhalants such as cleaning and lighter fuels and 56 from nitrous oxide.”
Last month, the government announced it “will ban nitrous oxide” to put “an end to the littering of empty canisters and intimidation in local parks.” Of course, the intention is to pander to its base to show Tories are “tough on crime”. When this criminalisation will happen is yet to be confirmed and, to be honest, unlikely to be possible in practice anyway. While nos is less harmful than difluoroethane, the government could never make it entirely illegal due to its practical applications (in hospitality and the health sector). From the politicians’ perspective, there’s no point in even talking about difluoroethane because nobody knows what it is, so there are no political points to score. That and the fact it has real uses that don’t involve getting high (just like nos).
So common sense has prevailed with difluoroethane; as with nos, the harms associated with that particular drug do not warrant the negative consequences associated with banning it. (Namely, the criminalisation of young people, which etches deep scars into society.) Logically, the government continues to fixate on nos for its own shallow political purposes.
“Inhalant abuse, also known as huffing, is common among teenagers and adolescents in the United States and worldwide,” researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston concluded in 2020. Professor Nutt says that as far as he knows, difluoroethane is not very prevalent as a drug of abuse in the UK right now. But, for those who do huff gas, he warns that “risks can include cardiac arrest and dependence”. He added: “The message is clear: inhalants are very, very dangerous – much more than nitrous oxide.”
Let’s hope that if it becomes illegal to possess nos (currently the second most popular illicit recreational drug amongst 16-to-24-year-olds in England) people don’t move on to this risky alternative. The government surely knows the ban on nos will increase harms of the drug, but they prioritise party politics over the wellbeing of an entire generation.
Dr Russell Newcombe is the Director of 3D Research and has been a consultant on drug use for 40 years. I asked him what sort of people usually take difluoroethane in the UK. “Not much is known about its ‘recreational’ use,” he said. “But my general impression is that it is of interest to two groups: one, young people who have no access to better quality drugs because of lack of money or contacts. And professional people worried about losing their jobs or income if they test positive for drugs, so they turn to using disgusting, risky stuff like difluoroethane which is unlikely to be tested for and even if it was, they could claim accidental inhalation.”
Most drug deaths involve some level of poly-drug use (using multiple substances at once to create an alphabet soup of intoxication) which makes it difficult for drug deaths to be accurately attributed to particular substances. There’s also a bunch of inconsistencies in the way that drugs are tested; some are routinely tested for after a death, whereas others are rarely tested for. It paints an unclear picture of the drug death landscape in the UK.
But one thing is crystal clear: the potential harms of huffing gas far outweigh the short-lived high-meets-headrush you can get from consuming it. All drugs are dangerous and poly-drug use only increases the risk.