By K Marie Porterfield of the Indian Country Today (South Dakota)
Rapid City, South Dakota, KRT – Hair spray, rubbing alcohol and cleaning fluid seem like a dream come true to many American Indian street people. The alcohol content is high. The price is right and, unlike hard liquor, sales are completely unrestricted in South Dakota.
To relatives and helping professionals, non-beverage alcohol consumption often seems like a nightmare.
Rapid City resident Carmen Gray, an Arapahoe-Oglala Lakota Indian, has stood by helplessly while her brother has gone through can after can of Final Net and White Rain hair spray over the past six years. She believes that if he continues drinking the popular water-and-hair-spray mixture called Ocean, he may not have much longer to live.
"I know it’s doing more damage to him than regular alcohol and doing it faster," she says.
"How can I help him if it’s so fast and so cheap?"
Counsellor Victoria Davis has seen clients move from drinking mouthwash, shaving lotion and cough syrup to drinking the cleaning fluid Lysol.
"Two of them used to be singers around a drum. Both of them have been drinking Lysol for about five years now. It’s affected their vocal cords so much they can’t sing. They can talk, but they’re getting all whispery voiced. These guys are only in their 30s."
"We see a great deal of it," Kathy Bohlen, a chemical dependency counsellor with the City and County Alcohol and Drug Programme, says about non-beverage alcohol drinking.
"The effects are disastrous. You never know when that stuff will turn on you. Some people can drink hair spray or Lysol for years and be OK. Others drink it for a few months, and they die."
According to Bohlen, the notion that alcoholics drink Lysol only because it is less expensive than beer, wine or liquor is a myth.
"Some of the people we treat actually prefer it," she says.
"They mix it with river water."
Another myth, this one popular on the street, is that Montana Gin or Colorado Kool-Aid, two street names for the Lysol mix, will cure hangovers.
"It does even more damage to people," Bohlen explains.
"The high alcohol content may take care of the shakes and feeling sick, but it’s really bad for you because brain damage starts happening sooner with non-beverage alcohol use."
Although a few doctors at area hospitals are aware that some Rapid City alcoholics are drinking anything they can swallow and poisoning themselves in the process, most have little knowledge about the problem.
"Most doctors just aren’t going to assume that the patient has been drinking rubbing alcohol," said Dr Jeff Knowles, programme coordinator for the Dual Diagnosis Programme at Sioux San, says.
"When somebody comes into the emergency room in a coma and the physician doesn’t know what they’ve been drinking, they treat the symptoms and delay the diagnosis."
A delayed diagnosis can be deadly.
Very little scientific research has been done in the United States on non-beverage alcohol consumption. A database search at the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) uncovered only four articles on the topic. Two mentioned non-beverage drinking only in passing. All were published in Canadian journals.
According to information provided by the NCADI, the side effects non-beverage alcohol products cause are frightening. Lysol contains the toxic chemical O-phenylphenol. Agitation, delirium and sweating are the short-term effects of drinking it. Convulsions, shock and respiratory failure can come with long-term use.
The top ingredient in aerosol hair spray is denatured alcohol. Mouthwash, perfume and shaving lotion also contain denaturing agents to make them taste bad so that people won’t drink them and become poisoned by the other ingredients. Denatured alcohol causes loss of coordination, blurred vision and central nervous system depression.
Rubbing alcohol contains isopropanol. Drinking it causes confusion, stomach pain, vomiting, loss of coordination and, sometimes, comas. When drunk in large amounts isopropanol can cause death.
Wood alcohol or methanol, which is found in antifreeze and solvents, causes blurred vision and even blindness because it damages the optic nerve. Nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, confusion, headaches and seizures are the symptoms of methanol abuse. If someone who has been drinking antifreeze or paint remover isn’t treated immediately, death can result. Ethylene glycol, another antifreeze ingredient, is very poisonous, causing kidney and heart failure.
KRT am 13/11/95 13-30NZ