Pressure to enact rules discouraging the use of an inhalant that contributed to singer Aaron Carter’s death has met resistance from federal regulators in recent years.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office determined this week that Carter accidentally drowned in his bathtub in November after inhaling difluoroethane, a compressed gas found in aerosol cleaners for electronic devices.
The medical examiner’s report also showed that the singer had taken alprazolam, a drug better known by its brand name, Xanax. The cause of death was drowning due to the effects of both substances, the report said.
Inhaling difluoroethane can cause people to lose consciousness and has also been linked to fatal heart and lung issues. But various household aerosol products, some marketed as keyboard cleaners or computer dusters, contain difluoroethane.
The accessibility of these products makes it easy for minors to become addicted, according to Scott Bowen, a psychology professor at Wayne State University who researches the effects of inhalant use.
“Huffing is one of the things that can start very young — 12, 13, 14 years of age — and it’s because it’s so easy to get,” Bowen said. “It’s harder to get alcohol.”
The nonprofit group Families United Against Inhalant Abuse has pushed for tighter federal restrictions on aerosol duster products, including harsher labels. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has questioned whether those proposed changes would stop people from abusing difluoroethane.
The nonprofit group filed a petition in 2021 asking the CPSC to adopt a mandatory safety standard for products containing difluoroethane or its derivatives.
In particular, the group wanted stronger language added to the items’ warning labels, such as the words “danger” and “death.” The nonprofit also asked the commission to require products with difluoroethane to carry an ingredient that makes them taste or smell bitter to discourage people from inhaling them.
Some aerosol duster products already contain this type of additive, which has not been shown to have much impact on substance abuse. But Families United Against Inhalant Abuse says there may be more effective options.
The CPSC deferred the petition in July to allow staff more time to research the issue. A commission spokesperson told NBC News that its “technical staff is currently conducting that research in an effort to develop further information to provide in a briefing package to the Commission on this issue no later than the end of the fiscal year.”
However, in a briefing at the time of the deferral, staffers expressed reservations about the effectiveness of the proposed safety standards. They recommended against requirements to add bitter substances and voiced concerns that a harsher warning label could have the unintended effect of encouraging substance use.
Adults represent the majority of people who abuse inhalants, according to CPSC data. From 2006 to 2020, the commission received reports of 1,133 hazardous incidents from huffing aerosol duster products. Of those cases, 70% were male, and more than 92% were people ages 18-54. All but seven cases resulted in death.
Many states have laws that impose fines or jail time on people who sell or possess inhalants for the purpose of becoming intoxicated.
Claudia Dimit, the board president of Families United Against Inhalant Abuse, said she isn’t optimistic that new standards will be implemented as a result of her petition. Her larger goal, she said, is to push for federal restrictions that cap how often aerosol duster products can be purchased, or that require products to be sold behind the counter.
“It would be wonderful if we could get the product banned altogether, but because of the power of the industry and the money involved, I don’t see that happening,” Dimit said.
Dimit started her organization in 2018, six years after her son, Brandon, died from inhalant use. He had first used the product just 20 days earlier, she said.
New legislation doesn’t always help curb substance abuse, Bowen said: “We’ve had these really strict drug laws in place for 50 years, and if you go look at drug use, it hasn’t changed.”
But he added that educating kids and parents about the dangers of inhalants, whether through school programs or public announcements, could be effective.
Many people aren’t aware of the presence of chemicals in aerosol products, Bowen said, and falsely believe they just contain canned air. Plenty of people also don’t realize that using an inhalant just once can have fatal consequences, he added.
“It’s kind of like the silent epidemic that just lies under the radar,” Bowen said.