Middle School Pupils at Highest Risk for Inhalant Use

Inhalants are a diverse range of household, industrial and medicinal chemicals that sometimes get adapted as drugs of abuse. Young people have especially high chances of beginning inhalant use, at least partly because they have less access to legal intoxicants than adults.

In a study published in November 2013 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers from the RAND Corporation examined the factors that contribute most to increased risks for inhalant use in middle school (junior high school) students. The researchers also examined the factors that contribute to decreased risks for inhalant use at this early age.

Inhalant Basics

As the name implies, inhalants are typically inhaled directly through the nose or mouth, rather than being swallowed, smoked or injected like a lot of other substances of abuse. However, like other commonly abused substances, these chemicals produce their primary drug effects by entering the bloodstream, traveling to the brain and altering the way in which the brain’s cells communicate with each other. The majority of inhalants were never intended for any form of human consumption. For this reason, in addition to their “desired” effects as drugs, many inhalant substances produce highly damaging side effects that can temporarily or permanently decrease the mental function of their users. Household products sometimes adapted as inhalants include deodorant and hair sprays, the fluid in felt-tip markers, cooking sprays and nail polish remover. Adapted industrial products include degreasers, gasoline, refrigerants and dry cleaning fluids. Adapted medicinal products include nitrous oxide, amyl nitrite, chloroform and ether.

Use Among Young People

In the U.S., inhalant use is most likely to occur among children in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, according to figures compiled by the University of Michigan and the National Institute on Drug Abuse as part of an annual nationwide survey of teen and preteen substance use called Monitoring the Future. The peak level of intake (6.2 percent in 2012) consistently appears in eighth graders. After this grade, levels of use typically drop over time. For example, in 2012, the rate of use among all U.S. 10th graders was 4.1 percent; among 12th graders, the rate of use dropped to slightly less than 3 percent.

Identifying Risks and Protective Factors

In the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the RAND Corporation researchers sought to determine the inhalant use rate among an ethnically diverse, representative group of 3,215 middle school students from the Los Angeles area. They also used data gathered from this group to assess the factors that tend to promote the onset of inhalant use at this early age, as well as the factors that tend to prevent or discourage the onset of early-age inhalant use. Each student in the study was surveyed five times over three years between the sixth and eighth grades.

All told, 17 percent of the students involved in the study began using inhalants at some point between the sixth and eighth grades. The researchers concluded that the primary factors that increase the likelihood of initiating inhalant intake include having an older sister or brother already involved in using the makeshift drugs and exposure to a parent or other adult authority figure who uses the drugs. In the sixth grade, students who believe that their peers use inhalants also have increased risks for initiating intake. In the seventh grade, similar risks appear in students trying to increase their popularity within their peer groups. The researchers also concluded that adult influence in favor of inhalant use essentially disappears between the seventh and eighth grades. Factors that decrease the likelihood of early-onset inhalant use include having strong family-oriented values, high levels of respect for one’s parents and the psychological/emotional ability to refuse offers of inhalant use from one’s peers.


Based on their findings, the authors of the study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs believe that anti-drug organizations should focus their inhalant use prevention efforts on middle school students in the sixth and seventh grades. They also believe that effective prevention programs must do such things as counteract the pro-inhalant influences from peers and adults, and instruct middle school kids in the personal and social skills typically required to decline any offer to begin using inhalants.