Problem petrol sniffers resurface

By Kathy Marks

Finger points at a few fuel retailers resisting pressure to sell low aromatic petrol.

Older people in Aboriginal communities in Australia have endured watching the next generation give themselves brain damage and not being able do anything about it.  Photo / Getty Images
Older people in Aboriginal communities in Australia have endured watching the next generation give themselves brain damage and not being able do anything about it. Photo / Getty Images

More than a decade after Australia was shocked by images of Aboriginal children stumbling through the desert with petrol canisters clamped to their faces, youth workers say the problem of sniffing has reappeared because some retailers are still refusing to stock non-sniffable fuel.

Opal petrol, developed by BP in 2004 and now stocked by about 90 per cent of fuel outlets in central Australia, has led to a dramatic decrease in the number of sniffers. But some retailers have resisted pressure to adopt Opal - the scheme has always been voluntary - and it is in nearby communities that the problem has once again reared its head.

In Lake Nash, for instance, near the Queensland border, at least 10 children aged between 12 and 17 are reported to be sniffing petrol routinely. Their source is believed to be a roadhouse across the border that sells regular unleaded fuel.

The situation is worse in the Top End, where - thanks to storage and distribution obstacles - Opal is less commonly found.

There are said to be 50 young sniffers in and around the Northern Territory town of Katherine.

The re-emergence of the habit, which causes brain damage, organ failure and, in extreme cases, death, was detailed by youth workers, community leaders and addiction counsellors in evidence to a senate committee last month. The committee is considering a Greens-sponsored bill that would give federal ministers power to compel petrol outlets to switch to Opal in designated areas.

Blair McFarland, co-ordinator of the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (Caylus), told the Herald the number of sniffers in his region had dropped from 500 to about 20 in the year after Opal was introduced - a decrease of 96 per cent. But it was "frustrating" that the problem still afflicted half a dozen communities, including Titjikala, 120km south of Alice Springs, where an 8-year-old boy was among those recently caught sniffing, according to another youth worker, Lisa Sharman.

The hard-core sniffers left are "walking billboards" for the habit, and they tend to recruit younger children, McFarland says. "One guy caused an outbreak among 12 kids in a Western Desert community. His parents came and took him away, and it stopped immediately. But then there was another outbreak in another community where he moved to. The young kids see people sniffing and acting crazy and dancing in the sand dunes, and they want to try that too."

Petrol stations and roadhouses refusing to stock Opal have claimed it is too expensive, damages engines and is unpopular with tourists.

The federal government, which subsidises the fuel, rejects the arguments. Calling the outlets "irresponsible", Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon has said: "Those few retailers holding out ... need to think about the damage petrol sniffing is doing to lives and communities in their area."

First observed in the 1970s, petrol sniffing reached epidemic proportions across remote Aboriginal Australia in the early 2000s. McFarland, who has worked in the central desert region for 10 years, says: "Kids were frying their brains, hurting themselves and their communities. One of the saddest things was the older people looking at the next generation giving themselves brain damage and not being able do anything about it. It was really demoralising."

The introduction of Opal - which contains minimal levels of the aromatic hydrocarbons that create a "high" - had almost eliminated the problem, he said. "Before Opal, it was in every car, and it was free. All you needed to get your drug of choice was a metre-long length of garden hose. And because you were only sniffing the vapour, a litre of petrol could keep you high for days and days.

"Now a generation is growing up without seeing their big brothers and sisters sniffing every day. Opal doesn't eliminate the underlying causes of sniffing, but it does give a window to address those causes and put in diversionary stuff such as youth programmes.

"We're on the cusp of making petrol-sniffing history, and legislation is one of the crucial tools. We need a federal law [mandating Opal] because the issues cross those lines on the map."

The senate committee will report this month and the bill - likely to be voted on before the end of the year - is expected to be passed, with support from Coalition and Labor senators. In the meantime, Snowdon has asked Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia to consider introducing their own legislation, along the lines of Northern Territory laws which, among other things, oblige sniffers to undergo mandatory rehabiliation.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently described petrol sniffing as "incredibly destructive", and the federal government has committed more than A$97 million ($125 million) to combating the issue over the next four years. Some of the money will go towards building bulk storage facilities in Darwin, the Kimberley and the Gulf of Carpentaria, helping to solve Opal distribution problems in the Top End.

With no concerted anti-sniffing programme to match one undertaken by Caylus in central Australia, the habit remains ingrained in communities in the north. In Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land, there are said to be 80 regular sniffers. Some Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland communities are also badly affected.

In the centre, the number of petrol sniffing-related deaths has dropped from eight a year to just one in total since Opal was introduced.

And contrary to widely expressed fears, says McFarland, most sniffers have not moved on to abuse other substances, largely because nothing else can match petrol's former availability.

Domestic violence levels, rates of house break-ins, vandalism and car thefts have dropped.

In a submission to the senate inquiry, the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee said it would be "a national shame to allow one more young indigenous person to suffer permanent brain damage when it can be avoided".

- NZ Herald

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