Specific Inhalants

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While there are about 250 different inhalant products that can be abused, in Australia the most commonly abused inhalants are petrol and paint.  d'Abbs and MacLean (2008 p. 13) suggest that in remote Indigenous communities petrol sniffing is the most common form of inhalant abuse while paint sniffing is more common in urban and regional areas.


Petrol is a volatile solvent that contains aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, xylene, n-hexane and toluene. Prior to 2002,  petrol also contained tetraethyl lead. These chemicals are rapidly absorbed into the fatty tissues of the brain and depress the central nervous system resulting in an intoxication similar to alcohol.  Chronic petrol sniffing results in significant brain damage with the effects accumulating over the years to the point of permanent brain damage.

Several different strategies have been used in an attempt to phase out petrol sniffing.  Not all have been successful and it is widely acknowledged that supply reduction methods alone will never eliminate the problem of petrol sniffing. 

For a review of the evidence of the history of petrol sniffing in Australia, read Chapter 7 of  Brady, Maggie (1992) Heavy metal: the social meaning of petrol sniffing in Australia, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Locking petrol up
Measures such as fitting petrol caps with locks, locking petrol pumps, surrounding petrol pumps with cages, and using dogs and guards to protect petrol supplies have had limited success as sniffers would find ways to access the petrol often damaging fuel lines, cars and structures in the process.

Adding chemical deterrents
In the early 1980's ethyl mercaptan was added to the petrol in several communities. Ethyl mercaptan is a sulphur based chemical that was used to make the smell of the petrol unpleasant.  It also causes nausea and vomiting when inhaled.  There was limited success in the project.  Several communities objected to the offensive smell, many parents found it distressing to see their children vomiting and it was believed that the effects from sniffing the petrol with the additive was more toxic. It was also suggested that the chemical could be 'weathered' by leaving the petrol out in the open resulting in the ethyl mercaptan evaporating.  This strategy was abandoned in the 1990's.

Avgas / Comgas
In the early 1990's, Aviation fuel (Avgas - made by BP) was used in many remote Indigenous communities as a substitute to petrol as it contains significantly less aromatic hydrocarbons the regular petrol therefore making it less attractive to petrol sniffing. This was a successful supply reduction strategy which resulted in the numbers of petrol sniffers decreasing in many communities.  However in 1998, the Australian Government increased the tax on Avgas when used for non-aviation purposes resulting in a significant increase in the price of the fuel, making it considerably higher in price than regular unleaded petrol. After pressure from many communities the Government set up a subsidy scheme known as the Comgas Scheme  whereby a subsidy was paid to the community to allow them to purchase the Avgas.  This bought the price in line with regular unleaded petrol. 
The Comgas Scheme was considered a great success and by 2004 more than 30 communities were part of the program.  It was noted in an evaluation of the scheme that while successful one of its limiting factors depended on whether alternative supplies of regular petrol were available nearby; if this was the case then almost certainly the success of the program was compromised.
Avgas however contains lead and in 2004 BP announced that it would replace Avgas with a more environmentally friendly fuel that contained no lead and that also contained low levels of aromatic hydrocarbons which made it less attractive to petrol sniffers.  Opal Fuel was launched in February 2005.

Opal Fuel
Opal fuel is a hydrocarbon fuel for use in spark ignition engines. It has very low levels of compounds such as benzene, toluene and xylene. These compounds are believed to be associated with the narcotic effects from sniffing petrol. The principal components in Opal fuel are pure hydrocarbons such as octane. Opal fuel has a characteristic sweet smell readily identified as petrol and is distinct from the more pungent smell of regular unleaded. Opal fuel also has very low levels of sulphur, less than 10ppm and meets the National Fuel Quality Standards Act of 2000, Petrol determination of 2001.

Opal fuel has been assessed and compared with other types of fuel by an independent professional toxicologist. The toxicology tests concluded that, “all fuels are potentially toxic, but in terms of chronic exposure Opal fuel is the least toxic of all the fuels assessed”.

Source: BP Australia, Opal Fuel  [website]

Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program
The Australian Government reconfirmed their committment to dealing with petrol sniffing by continuing to subsidise to supply of Opal fuel.  The subsidy is now given to BP as opposed to individual communities in recognition of the cost in developing the fuel.   The Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program (PSPP) is a rebranding of the Comgas Scheme. 

Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program (PSPP) [website]
The Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program supports the Australian Government's commitment to closing the gap in the life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. The key components of the Petrol Sniffing Prevention Program are:

  • Supply of subsidised Opal fuel to Indigenous communities, roadhouses, petrol stations and other relevant fuel outlets
  • Communication activities, aimed at supporting the promotion and implementation of the PSPP as well as the government approach to petrol sniffing
  • Information resources related to Opal fuel and petrol sniffing in general
  • Treatment and respite monitoring. These services will be provided in conjunction with the relevant States and Territories
  • Data collection
  • Evaluation of the PSPP

The Eight Point Plan for the Central Desert Region
The Eight Point Plan was developed as a result of input from communities dealing with petrol sniffing, previous reviews (Comgas Scheme)  and several meetings conducted by an Inter-Departmental Committee relating to petrol sniffing in July and August 2005.  State, Territory and Commonwealth representatives supported the proposal in September 2005. The aims of the plan are to reduce "the incidence and impact of petrol sniffing in a defined area of Central Australia by addressing the mix of inter-related causes", and to evaluate "the effectiveness of a regional and comprehensive response to petrol sniffing, to help establish whether and how it might usefully be expanded to other regions".

The eight points that make up the plan are:

  1. Roll-out of unleaded Opal Fuel to affected communities.
  2. A uniform legal framework across the region dealing with petrol sniffing and mental health.
  3. Appropriate levels of policing.
  4. Alternate or diversionary activities for young people
  5. Activities to strengthen and support communities.
  6. Rehabilitation and treatment facilities.
  7. A communication strategy.
  8. Evaluation.

The government departments involved are Department of Families,  Housing, Community Services, and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA), Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST ; now Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations - DEEWR) and Attorney General's Department (AGD). 

Australian Government. Dept. of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (2008),
Review of the first phase of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy. [website]

Recommended Reading
Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council (2004) An evaluation of the Comgas Scheme, Canberra: Australian Government, Department of Health and Ageing [pdf - 1.48 MB]

The Anangu Lands Paper Tracker. Yalata: access to Opal fuel [website]

Australian Government. Dept. of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (2008), Review of the first phase of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy [pdf - 390kB]

Brady, Maggie (1992) Heavy metal: the social meaning of petrol sniffing in Australia, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press

de Carvalho, D (2007) Case Study: Intersectoral action to reduce petrol sniffing in remote communites of Central Australia, Crossing Sectors - Dialogue on Intersectorial Action, June 10-11, 2007, Vancouver, Canada,  Public Health Agency of Canada and the Secretariat to the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, [Canberra]: Department of Health and Ageing. [pdf - 285 kB]

d'Abbs P and Shaw G (2008), Executive summary of the 'Evaluation of the impact of Opal Fuel', Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing [website]

d'Abbs P. & MacLean S. (2008), Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions, Monograph Series(National Drug Strategy (Australia)), No. 65, Canberra: Australian Government, Dept. of Health and Ageing. [pdf - 781 kB]

d'Abbs P. & MacLean S. (2000), Petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities: a review of interventions, Casuarina, NT: The Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal and Tropical Health 

Northern Territory. Select Committee on Substance Abuse in the Community (2004), Petrol sniffing in remote Northern Territories communities. Darwin: Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory. [pdf - 503 kB]

The Senate. Community Affairs Committee (2008), Inquiry into petrol sniffing and substance abuse in Central Australia. [website]

The Senate. Community Affairs Reference Committee (2006), Beyond petrol sniffing: renewing hope for Indigenous communities, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. [pdf - 905 kB]


Paint sniffing or 'chroming' is a particularly dangerous form of inhalant abuse as aerosol paint contains not only the solvents in the paint but also the solvents that are used as propellants.  Different types and/or colours of paint contain different solvents with chrome paint being particularly popular (hence the term 'chroming').  Aerosol propellants contain butane and toluene which add to the solvent cocktail.  The inhalation of butane may result in a syndrome known as 'Sudden sniffing death'.  Death occurs as a result of stress placed on the heart from the chemicals in the inhalant causing irregular heart rhythms. The user is at a higher risk if they are placed under any stress such as being chased.  Sudden sniffing death can happen even after one session of aerosol sniffing. Users have reported extreme hallucination episodes as a result of paint sniffing, many of which result in accidents and injuries to the users.  

As with all inhalant abuse, a comprehensive approach is required when dealing with paint sniffing.  This includes reducing the availability of spray paint and providing counselling and diversion programs for users to help address the issues that lead them to inhalant abuse. 

Read about the Sunshine Chroming Awareness Program : a work-in-progress report. (2000). [A hardcopy is available from the NIIS]

Low aromatic paint
White Knight Paints white knight paints safe to spray logo  
All locally produced aerosol paints are now toluene free reducing their attractiveness as inhalants. [website]

The Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service (CAYLUS) have been working with retailers to help reduce the incidence of paint sniffing.  SuperCheap Autos have started to sell a brand of paint that contains a reduced amount of volatile solvents making it less attractive to sniffers.  This has resulted in a decrease in the level of paint sniffing in the community.

d'Abbs P. & MacLean S. (2008), Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions, Monograph Series(National Drug Strategy (Australia)), No. 65, Canberra: Australian Government, Dept. of Health and Ageing. [pdf - 781 kB]

For more information look in the database.  Use search terms such as: paint sniffing, petrol sniffing, glue sniffing, nitrous oxide, butane, propane, amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite.

Page last updated 14 October 2013


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