Since ancient times, people have inhaled the fumes of different chemicals like incense, oils, resins, burning spices and perfumes to alter consciousness or as part of religious ceremonies. The first report of people sniffing petrol to get 'high' was in the US in 1934. After that people realised they could also get high from sniffing all sorts of household products that contained volatile fumes: glue, aerosols, chrome – based paint, paint thinner, cleaning fluids and lighter fluids.
Petrol sniffing is a form of substance misuse. Petrol sniffers deliberately inhale the petrol fumes given off for the intoxicating effect. They hold a saturated cloth over their nose and mouth or sniff directly from a small container. Intoxication can be rapid, within one to five minutes. Depending on the method, the effects may last for minutes or several hours. Young people also sniff other substances such as glue, photocopier fluid, aerosols, paint thinner, cleaning and lighter fluids.
People inhale through the mouth or nose using either a cloth soaked in petrol or a small container filled with petrol. Petrol goes from the lungs to the bloodstream and then into the brain. There it slows down brain activity and depresses the central nervous system in a similar way to alcohol. Within seconds the person can feel euphoric, relaxed, dizzy, numb and light. They may also experience:
lack of coordination, staggering
They may look like someone who is drunk on alcohol but act a bit more strangely. Sometimes you can smell the strong odour of petrol on them. These effects can last up to an hour, and longer if they keep sniffing. In serious cases people may have fits.
It is possible to die from sniffing the first time because the petrol is taking the place of oxygen in the blood and not enough oxygen is being taken to the brain. People have died this way from sniffing with a jumper or blanket around their head because it stops oxygen getting to the lungs.
People have died from doing exercise like running or playing football straight after sniffing. The combined stress of sniffing and exercise put too much pressure on the heart.
Many people who sniff have suffered serious burns or death because the petrol caught fire. Sniffing around any flames or fire is very dangerous.