By PATTY PENSA
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Jason Emanuel was a troubled 20-year-old whose drug of choice was keyboard cleaner.
He sucked can after can of products such as Dust-Off until his lips turned blue and the euphoria set in. He came to a Delray Beach, Fla., sober house to get clean.
Instead, he was arrested for "huffing" three times over four weeks and died after his final high set off a seizure.
Jason Emanuel's case reflects the danger of household products in the hands of young people looking for an easy hit. Indeed, Emanuel chose inhalants because there is no middle man, other than a checkout clerk. Compared with other drugs, the number of people who die from inhalants is small, but there is growing concern over the No. 1 drug of middle-schoolers, who studies show see huffing as a low-risk hit.
"Jason was not a criminal," his adoptive father, Chris Emanuel, said. "He wasn't a guy that would stick up the 7-Eleven. He had a problem and eventually it defeated him."
The coroner's report, which determines cause of death, is not complete yet.
Chris Emanuel last saw his son in mid-December, about the same time the North Carolina native was first arrested in Boynton Beach, Fla. Twice police found him in his car huffing outside Wal-Mart. A third time, he was outside SuperTarget. Each time, he appeared unsteady on his feet and was incoherent, according to police reports.
Using Jason Emanuel as an example, police in January called a news conference to warn parents about huffing. They called him the "poster child" for inhalant abuse. More than 2 million kids ages 12-17 chose an inhalant to get high, according to the Alliance for Consumer Education, which operates the Web site inhalant.org.
What they huff is found at home, with more than 1,400 household products as potential hits.
"This is a tragic situation that highlights the dangers of inhalant abuse and should force every parent to have a conversation with their children about the deadly consequences," police spokeswoman Stephanie Slater said in a statement.
Inhalants affect the body like alcohol does: slurred speech, lack of coordination and dizziness. Some users experience hallucinations and delusions. More severe are the long-term effects, such as liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, limb spasms and brain damage.
Because the high lasts only a few minutes, users prolong the feeling by huffing for hours. Chemical-induced cardiac arrest can happen any time, said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, medical director of the Florida Poison Control covering South Florida.
Even without an autopsy, Jason Emanuel's final encounter with police on Feb. 26 reveals the role inhalants played in his death. Days before, he was kicked out of the Delray Beach halfway house where he came to get sober. For three days he lived in his car, and on the last, sheriff's deputies were called to Wal-Mart west of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Jason Emanuel told the deputies he had been huffing that afternoon, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera. Paramedics took him to the hospital and, on the way, he suffered a seizure and stopped breathing.
On average, 100 to 125 people across the United States die from inhalants annually, said Harvey Weiss, spokesman for the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition. But the numbers may be higher, he said. There is no national clearinghouse on inhalant-related deaths.
An interim report from Florida's medical examiners attributes three deaths to inhalants in 2007. In contrast, cocaine killed 398 people in the state last year. The prescription drug Oxycodone claimed 323 lives. Anti-drug advocates say inhalants are just as dangerous.
"You see kids on YouTube joking around, laughing and having fun, and the risk really isn't conveyed," said Colleen Creighton, the consumer alliance's executive director. "The frightening thing for us is how young the kids are who are using."
A government study released last month showed inhalants are the drug of choice for 12- and 13-year-olds. As they get older, many teens switch to marijuana.
Jason Emanuel was the opposite. His father said he smoked marijuana in high school but took up huffing about a year ago.
"He got off marijuana because he didn't like finding dealers," he said. "You can go to any place and find an inhalant."
Jason Emanuel grew up in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte, N.C. The product of private schools, he was a bright kid who had big ambitions. Ultimately, he dropped out after his first semester at Appalachian State University to go into rehab.
His parents sent him to rehabilitation centers around the United States, but he veiled his troubles to his friends.
"He just didn't act like someone who was a drug addict," Elliot Engstrom, 19, a childhood friend, said.
"With my generation, people get so concerned with drugs you hear about in pop culture. That's really not the problem. It's the prescription drugs and the stuff you buy at Wal-Mart."