Chemical solvents and aerosol propellants disguised as a drug called poppers may be putting gay men at risk of illness and possibly even death. Poppers are inhaled, and the substances they contain have a relatively benign reputation that may or may not be deserved. But when toxic solvents and propellants are inhaled, this activity is most commonly referred to as huffing, and this practice is considered to be one of the most treacherous forms of substance abuse known to humankind. Old-style poppers came in glass vials and contained a chemical compound called amyl nitrite. This substance expands blood vessels and relaxes involuntary muscles, and is frequently used to treat a serious heart condition called angina. When opened and sniffed, poppers will also deliver a mild psychoactive jolt, similar to a muted version of Ecstasy or LSD, and it was the sound these vials made when the tops were snapped off that led to the use of the slang term “poppers.” Poppers have a long history but first came to prominence in the 1970s on the gay club scene, and despite going in and out of fashion, they continue to have a presence in gay male culture. Amyl nitrites have been largely phased out in favor of a related family of chemical substances known as alkyl nitrites. These slightly milder chemicals were supposed to add an extra touch of safety to the popping process while still delivering the desired mind-altering and muscle-relaxing effects. Research into the true effects of poppers is severely lacking. However, the risks associated with inhaling solvents and propellants are well-known and well-established. And that is why it is so disturbing to know some of these substances are being used by gay men and other drug enthusiasts, who apparently believe these “poppers” are just an updated version of a familiar item.
Maximum Impact Means Maximum Danger
In order to learn more about this development, three Los Angeles-area researchers spoke to drug informants and scoured the Internet looking for details about the evolution of popper formulas. They weren’t able to find much, since these substances seem to have gone ultra-underground. But they found enough references to substances like “Maximum Impact,” an alleged popper made from ethyl chloride, to realize that heavy-duty huffing drugs are in circulation and carrying a very misleading label. Ethyl chloride is an aerosol propellant that no one has any business inhaling. And yet people do, despite its highly toxic nature. People huffing this chemical may experience a loss of memory, reasoning skills, problem-solving abilities and the capacity to make plans and develop strategies to implement them. Delirium may replace hallucinations, and sudden death from heart arrhythmia could be the final result. Chemicals like ethyl chloride are three times as potent and 10 times as poisonous as the alkyl or amyl nitrites typically used in poppers. Because this activity is so hidden, it is difficult to estimate how many gay men are joining the ranks of the huffers.
‘Safe Drugs,’ the Ultimate Oxymoron
The alarm should certainly be sounding about propellants and solvents disguised as conventional poppers. But it is the use of the supposedly “safe” versions of these drugs that is ultimately setting everyone up for a fall. No drug taken for its intoxicating or hallucinogenic qualities is harmless, regardless of its reputation.