Tough laws and low-aromatic fuel have not stopped the scourge of petrol sniffing and solvent abuse, with hundreds of cases being referred for possible mandatory treatment each year in the Top End alone, more than two-thirds of them involving children.
Official figures obtained by The Weekend Australian reveal that the Top End Health Service, which operates in the upper part of the Northern Territory, received 163 referrals in the first half of 2020, most of them for children and some as young as seven.
The worst-affected communities included those along the Arnhem Land coast that this newspaper last Saturday revealed were also caught in an epidemic of child suicide.
A coronial inquest into the deaths of three youngsters aged 12, 13 and 17 years — all of whom perished after long battles with solvent abuse — this week heard about an “avgas crisis” that saw elevated lead levels measured in close to 200 Arnhem Land children in 2017. An outbreak of deodorant sniffing among a group of girls in the town of Katherine had forced several agencies to scramble to respond earlier this year.
The NT is the only jurisdiction with powers to force sniffers into rehabilitation. But the inquest was told health authorities did not understand and often failed to properly apply those laws, despite being repeatedly warned about similar errors.
Cecelia Gore, the Health Department director for mental health, alcohol and other drugs, conceded her agency’s numerous “technical” mistakes but argued mandatory treatment was a blunt instrument best as a last resort.
“Most of the young people that come in for volatile-substance abuse are also using alcohol, also using cannabis,” she said.
“Volatile-substance is, in young people, one of the ways that they can express self-harming behaviours. It can be driven by boredom; it can be driven by trauma … it’s a signal that there’s something else going on.”
The grandfather of 17-year-old Ms B — who the inquiry heard had twice been raped, selfharmed, suffered domestic violence and dropped out of school during a long period in which she sniffed petrol but never received a treatment plan — told the inquest she had succumbed to harmful influences from a troubled crowd.
“Other children in the community were smoking, sniffing breaking into shops and talking about hurting themselves,” he said. “Then Ms B started doing it, too.”
The numbers of referrals to TEHS rose from 42 in 2008 to 381 in 2015, but then fell to 255 in 2019. The count of 163 in the first half of 2020 suggested this year’s total could again exceed 300.
Arnhem Land-based Miwatj Health dealt with a further 81 cases in the past six months not counted in the mandatory treatment figures, up from 31 in cases in the six months prior. The change could reflect an increase in presentations, the inquiry heard.
Most of the patients referred for possible mandatory treatment were never sent. It remained unclear to what extent that was correct, given the inquiry heard TEHS spent almost two years “assessing” some referrals when it should have spent two weeks. It also repeatedly and wrongly “case managed” high-risk patients off its books.
Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie testified that lowaromatic Opal fuel had helped reduce the harm caused by sniffing. Widespread use of Opal — which is fuel stripped of many intoxicating ingredients believed to be responsible for brain damage
— was one of the recommendations of a 2005 coronial inquest into deaths in Mutitjulu. A woman attended that inquiry (held in the community) with her child sniffing petrol from a tin.
“The risk today mostly is asphyxiation, when it comes to Opal fuel, or should the person set fire to themselves,” Dr Heggie said.
‘Volatile-substance (abuse) is, in young people, … a signal that there’s something else going on’
(Source - The Australian 17th Oct 20)