LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 4 no 4 Spring 1996  ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Leaded Petrol Sniffing - Case Studies

by Robin Mosman, Information and Referral Project Officer,
NSW Community Lead Advisory Service

Robin Mosman has done some special research on leaded petrol sniffing amongst white children whose carers have contacted The LEAD Group’s advisory service. In our previous LEAD Action News the article "If Petrol Sniffing was a White Problem. Leaded Petrol would be Banned" quoted Dr Bart Currie at Royal Darwin Hospital. One of Dr Currie’s students at the Menzies School of Research, who recently submitted his PhD on petrol sniffing, said the sniffing of leaded rather than unleaded petrol is "definitely associated with acute illness and hospitalisation. Everything points to the lead additives, which is not to say that the petroleum doesn't cause long-term neurological damage too.".

Inquirer 1 is the sister of a 22 year old man who started sniffing petrol 10 years ago. She contacted The LEAD Group after seeing a program about the precautions needed for lead-safe renovation, on the television program "Better Homes and Gardens" in which a contact phone number was given. "He chooses leaded petrol because he knows it's stronger." She said she thought he would give up sniffing if there were no leaded petrol available.

She wanted to find out about the health effects of petrol sniffing. Her brother had been in hospital in a coma, on a life support system but "they won't tell me what I want to know. No-one knows enough about it. What's going to go first, his kidneys, a massive heart attack? I just want to know. I can't get him into a drying-out clinic. They say they know nothing about petrol sniffing and just send him away. His case officer has only one petrol sniffer, and that's him." A Drug and Alcohol case officer sees him once a month and gives him a shot which calms him down for a while. "He smells like petrol - it comes out of his skin. Mum says his urine smells really bad lately."

She said her brother was "getting too much" for their mother. "She's really struggling." The mother works full-time and is doing a Bachelor of Business degree part-time. "Mum sometimes goes to a group called Lead Factor. It was set up by a mum who's son died by falling into the river because he was out of it from petrol sniffing. There's 5 or 6 of them who go."

The LEAD Group began to work through its contacts in an attempt to find some help for the young woman and her brother, who lived in Brisbane. A Northern Territory contact from the Menzies School of Research said that there was very little to offer in the area of rehabilitation of petrol sniffers in the Northern Territory. "Drug and alcohol clinics generally can't deal with the problem." Two referrals were given for contacts in Brisbane. One of these people had left the hospital to which she had been attached, which left one professor of psychiatry "who might know a bit about petrol sniffing." Referrals were also found for a neurologist who has researched at least 20 cases of petrol sniffing in Western Australia, and to the Ombudsman for the Queensland Health Rights Commission, and a contact with the youth drug program. A considerable amount of printed information was posted to the young woman.

Some months later The LEAD Group recontacted her in order to find out how useful the information had been to her. She had not followed up any of the contacts, but said:

"Just that lady talking to me and caring about my brother helped - just being able to talk to someone so openly. The whole thing is too horrible - most people don’t want to know about it. Nobody understands. Nothing's going to change the damage my brother's done to himself. No-one's going to solve his problem, because it's his problem. Being able to talk it through has helped me to cope with the situation. My brother is still sniffing petrol but he's not as bad lately. He's now got more case officers from Drug and Alcohol working with him, and they contact him on a daily basis. He's on some new sort of drug, and he's been behaving himself. He always looks really pale but he used to get the shakes and that doesn't happen now. He's very slow in his speech and slow to understand what people say to him."

The Lead Factor support group her mother had attended was no longer functioning "because the lady who started it up has moved away."

Inquirer 2 is the mother of a 14 year old boy. They are a farming family from western NSW. When her son was 3 years old he was twice caught sniffing petrol, having taken the cap off the petrol tank of a farm vehicle. She also knows of one incident at primary school, when he was caught by a teacher, and another at high school when he and some friends were seen sniffing petrol while refuelling the school tractor. She has been concerned about her son for years, describing him as "very short-tempered. Ever since he started school he's been having trouble learning. If the teachers let him get away with it he doesn't do any work, he just dreams and looks out the window."

Just before she made contact with The LEAD Group, she and her husband were really worried about the boy. "Every time he came inside I’d smell petrol on him, really strong fumes. He'd always have an excuse - Dad asked him to refuel one of the bikes and he'd spilt a bit, that sort of thing - but he was doing it to an extent that he was coughing." Her husband said "What can we do? We can't put everything under lock and key". Then one night she caught him at it. "He was really starry-eyed, he had the staggers, like he was drunk."

It was at this time, not knowing where to turn for assistance in her isolated community, that she saw a TV program about the Community Lead Advisory Service (NSW CLAS). "I didn't even realise there was such a place that I could ring. I phoned the station for your number." She received information via telephone plus follow up printed information. Armed with this, she and her husband tackled their son. Being really clear for themselves about why the petrol sniffing was such a danger to him, they presented the strongest possible case against it to him - "we really got stuck into him. We told him it was damaging his brain and could kill him". Then they gave him the greatest possible motivation for giving it up - "His heart's set on coming back to work on the farm. We told him if we caught him at it again we'd sell the farm, we couldn't stay here with all the petrol around."

She is sure he has not sniffed petrol since this ultimatum, but remains concerned about his learning difficulties. "His father's had him on the tractor, but he won't leave him alone for more than a few rounds - he seems to wander off after a while, he goes off in a bit of a daze." She also described his reading skills as bad, though "he's good at problem solving in maths." CLAS encouraged her to search out whatever resources might be available in her nearest town to assist him in improving his learning skills

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