Petrol sniffing

Petrol sniffing

His Honour Judge Wayne Chivell


Petrol sniffing has become emblematic of the situation of many young Aboriginal people in rural and remote communities. It symbolises the attitudes these young people have developed to their peers, their families, their communities and to their culture – a kind of listless, uncaring apathy, an indifference to the harm it causes to themselves and to everyone who must deal with them.

Of course, petrol sniffing can be seen as simply another form of substance abuse, a phenomenon that has been a part of human behaviour since man discovered that the ingestion of certain substances could have mind-altering effects. It could be argued, for example, that petrol sniffing is no more harmful than the inhalation of solvents in urban areas by young people.

Stewart Roper is a very experienced registered nurse. He worked for a substantial period in clinics operated by the Nganampa Health Council, the health body delivering health services in the Anangu Pitjantjatjaraku (AP) Lands.1 Mr Roper wrote a thesis for a Master’s degree about the phenomenon of petrol sniffing and its associated issues.2 He quotes C. Burns, who argued, in a PhD thesis3, that petrol sniffing shares:

… some commonality with explanations of adolescent drug use generally. These factors include; adolescent risk taking behaviours and experimentation, peer group influences, rejection of and rebellion against significant role models, a desire to be autonomous and seek self-identity, and pharmacological factors, particularly the euphoric effects of petrol sniffing and development of psychological dependence.

Burns continues:

It is certainly true that petrol sniffing in remote Aboriginal communities in Australia is part of a general picture of substance abuse in those communities. Alcohol abuse has had particularly harmful consequences, as it has in the wider Australian community. Other drugs, such as cannabis, amphetamines and heroin, are becoming increasingly available in remote areas, with concomitant issues of AIDS, hepatitis and other conditions associated with intravenous drug use.

So why is petrol sniffing so alarming? Firstly, because it is a practice that is so foreign to urban Australians – the practice of young people walking around with their face in a can containing petrol is beyond our experience, whereas drinking, smoking and even intravenous injection is not. Secondly, because the practice can be associated with the breakdown of traditional Aboriginal authority structures over children and young people in such a visual way. Thirdly, because the inexorable development of consequences – the physical debilitation, the anorexia, the lack of personal hygiene, the inability to communicate, the violent, aggressive and irrational behaviour, eventually the brain damage, the spasticity, the tremors, and finally the total and permanent incapacity, both physical and intellectual – are so obvious.


According to Maggie Brady, who wrote a seminal study of petrol sniffing in 1992,5 the earliest report in the scientific literature concerning petrol sniffing came from the USA in 1934. She wrote:

In Australia, it is commonly believed that petrol sniffing among Aborigines started during the Second World War when large numbers of American servicemen were stationed throughout north Australia, in Queensland and the Northern Territory (Nurcombe et al, 1970, 369; Senate Select Committee 1985, 1,494). Some would have it that the practice was initiated by Black Americans.6

Brady expressed some scepticism as to the accuracy of this assertion, commenting that it is ‘tempting to interpret (blaming black Americans) as an example of externalising blame – or of racism’. Brady was unable to find any mention in contemporary accounts of petrol sniffing. More recently, evidence was given to a Northern Territory Legislative Assembly Select Committee in October 2004 about American servicemen sniffing petrol and Aboriginal people taking it up.7

Whatever its origins, petrol sniffing was observed on the Cobourg Peninsula in 1950.8 There is fairly sparse information after that, until the phenomenon gathered momentum in the late 1960s/early 1970s. This coincided with the development of larger, more concentrated communities at places such as Maningrida.

Petrol sniffing was also noted at Amata (established in 1961) and Ernabella (now called Pukatja, first established in 1936) in the 1960s. Both of these communities are now in the AP Lands.

Brady attributed the spread of petrol sniffing to a number of factors.

Historical – forced and voluntary abandonment of the small huntergatherer group lifestyle; creation of mission and government settlements.

Political – government policies made settlements into institutions; Aborigines became dependent on white systems to solve local problems.

Demographic – lower infant and child mortality; larger groups of agemates.

Social – creation of teenagers as a social grouping; growth of non-Aboriginal focus on youth; interest in sport and attendance at boarding schools exaggerates teenage group bonding.

Logistical – availability of privately owned vehicles; availability of petrol; mobility facilitated by these two factors.

Cultural – marriage links and land alliances covering vast distances; contact facilitated by vehicle ownership.

In the early years, it was not thought that petrol sniffing would cause any long-term harmful effects. However, since the 1970s, when petrol sniffing became chronic and continuous, there has been an associated rise in morbidity and death.9 It was initially thought that the harmful effects were caused by the lead in petrol, but, in more recent times, permanent brain and other organ damage resulting from chronic sniffing of unleaded petrol has been noted.

Interestingly, Brady argues that the fact that the older generation may have experimented with petrol sniffing without long-term ill effects may have inhibited direct intervention by those people when their children began petrol sniffing. The parents did not see it as dangerous. She observed:

Brady also commented that different belief systems, which attribute illness and sudden death to other causes, complicate matters. There may be both a cultural and psychological imperative to believe, in the event of a death, that it was caused by adulteration of the petrol, or ‘strong’ petrol, rather than by the practice of sniffing itself.

This experience may explain why petrol sniffing has persisted in some locations, whereas in others it has been successfully curbed. The communities within which the older generations did not develop this more tolerant attitude to petrol sniffing may have been stronger in dealing with it. In the other communities, a more powerful education programme may be needed to counteract these perceptions of the older generation.

Brady undertook a detailed analysis of the spread of petrol sniffing throughout Central and Northern Australia and the reasons why the practice of petrol sniffing took hold in some communities and not in others, and an examination of her work is instructive.11

Anne Mosey, an experienced project officer and consultant who has been involved in these issues for many years, suggested that petrol sniffing had been occurring in the Kutjungka region of northern Western Australia since the 1950s.12 Surprisingly, however, the practice had not become entrenched throughout the region, and was confined to certain communities and not others. Clearly, local factors such as boredom, or particular adult responses to the practice, were at work.

Mosey commented:

There appear to be slightly different patterns of use in different areas (A. Mosey, Petrol sniffing in the Central Australian Region). Much of the NT and the north of WA appear to have a pattern of wave-like cyclical occurrences of sniffing. There may be none at all in a community for several years, then it will be re-introduced and flare up again for a time then reduce again after community action. Numbers of young people sniffing may go from none to sixty then back to ten over a period of a year. Sniffers typically do not sniff in the daytime, but only at night.

More of the sniffing appears to be opportunistic, rather than chronic. This intermittent nature has been suggested as the reason for a lower number of seriously disabled ex-sniffers in NT, compared with SA. (There may well be other reasons for this.) There appears to have been very few, if any, ‘chronic’ sniffers in comparison with communities to the south and east. When chronic sniffers are visiting from other communities, they can attract others to the practice very easily and rapidly.

In contrast, the communities in the north of SA and the western Goldfields region of WA appear to have a pattern of a number of chronic continuous sniffers, with a larger group of intermittent sniffers. The chronic sniffers sniff during all their waking hours, typically with a blanket or parka over their heads and petrol container, and can become violent at attempts to alter their behaviour. There have been some instances of violence by sniffers in Wirrimanu – these may have occurred when violence was used against them. A ‘gator’ (a small buggy) was burned after the male Wardens had assaulted a sniffer. There have also been many instances of ‘break and enter’, and some damage to vehicles, usually against buildings during the school holidays.

Roper also observed that petrol sniffing had been noted in Central Australia since the 1960s and had possibly been occurring since the 1950s.13 He commented:

By 1970 the practice had escalated considerably as cars became more common. In these early years it appears that petrol sniffing was largely experimental and probably not indulged in often enough to produce serious health problems. This inference is supported by the finding that:

Many of these individuals rose to political and local prominence, becoming Council members, teachers’ aides and even parliamentary representatives.

(Brady, 1992, p 150)

However, from the mid 1970s core groups of mostly young males have increasingly used petrol almost continuously and over long periods of time.

He noted that the few petrol sniffers who were consulted by the Senate Select Committee on Volatile Substance Fumes in 1985 all said that they did it for fun.14

The consequences of petrol sniffing

Petrol is sniffed because it produces a state of euphoria and it can also have hallucinogenic consequences. Petrol is poured into a container, usually a metal can, which is moulded to adapt to the contours of the face. The can is pressed to the face and the vapour is inhaled.

Petrol, in its conventional form, contains a complex mixture of organic substances including benzene, toluene and xylene. Petrol used in older cars (manufactured before 1986) also contained lead and sniffing it caused lead poisoning. In earlier times, this was considered the most harmful consequence of petrol sniffing, as I have already mentioned.

The effects of petrol sniffing are many, and include euphoria, hallucinations, delusions, nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, aggressive behaviour, irritability, hyperactivity, aches and pains, headache and fatigue.

Chronic petrol sniffing can lead to seizures, tremors, and ataxia and encephalopathy. A phenomenon called ‘sudden sniffing death’ has also been observed. It is thought that petrol sniffing has led to the onset of fatal cardiac arrhythmias in such cases.

In cases involving the deaths in 1999 and 2001 of three young people from the AP Lands, which were the subject of a coronial inquest which I conducted as South Australian State Coroner in 2002, the cause of death was recorded simply as ‘hydrocarbon inhalation’. Each of the deceased had taken a can of petrol to bed and continued to sniff until they died from respiratory depression and/or asphyxia, although cardiac arrhythmia can never be excluded in such cases. What was remarkable about these cases was that each person died with their face still sealed in the can and the marks made by the can were still visible after death.15

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