CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. - The everyday products used for “huffing” seem so ordinary, but their abuse can lead to consequences that are extraordinarily tragic.
Never was that more apparent than on Nov. 3 in Lake Hallie, Wis., when a driver who admitted to police he had been inhaling chemical fumes killed three Girl Scouts and a mother after striking them and another girl with his pickup truck as they were picking up trash along the side of Highway P.
The crash led to Colten R. Treu, 21, of Chippewa Falls, being charged with four felony counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, four counts of hit-and-run involving death and one count each of hit-and-run causing great bodily harm, intentionally abusing hazardous materials and bail jumping. Treu didn’t stop after striking the Girl Scouts, instead driving his Ford F-150 to his home, putting it in the garage and parking another vehicle in front of it. He turned himself in to authorities about five hours after the crash.
Treu told authorities that he and his passenger, John Stender, purchased a canister of keyboard cleaner at Walmart and huffed the chemicals to get high just before the crash less than two miles away. Treu claimed he lost control of the vehicle and fishtailed after Stender grabbed the steering wheel from him, according to the criminal complaint filed in Chippewa County Circuit Court.
While the tragedy shocked the region and thrust huffing into the news, a local drug abuse specialist said inhalant abuse is a persistent problem in the region that has been around for a long time.
“It can change names and substances, but it kind of stays around because it’s a cheap high using easily accessible substances,” said Corina Fisher, outpatient behavioral health counselor at L.E. Phillips-Libertas Treatment Center, which is part of HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls.
Huffing, also referred to as sniffing, dusting or bagging, involves inhaling a number of common household products such as air dusters, hair spray, butane lighters, spray paint, whipped cream aerosols or even solvents such as paint thinner.
“You inhale these substances, and it affects the brain and kind of creates this euphoric high,” Fisher said. “It gives you a lot of the same effects as being really drunk.”
But along with that high, the lack of oxygen to the brain can cause symptoms such as blacking out, dizziness, confusion and a lack of coordination that make driving extremely hazardous, she said, noting that inhalants also can be addictive and that the Libertas center treats people with huffing problems on both an inpatient and outpatient basis.
“There is no safe amount of inhalant to use before driving,” Fisher stressed. “Any sort of huffing can result in blackouts or dangerous behavior.”
Huffing also can cause burns on abusers’ faces and long-term health problems such as liver, kidney or brain damage, Fisher said. In some cases, huffing can be fatal for the abuser, according to the Alliance for Consumer Education, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that promotes awareness of inhalant abuse.
“Too many people think that inhaling products to get high is harmless,” Rob Slone, president of the ACE Board of Trustees, said in a news release. “We see too often the dangerous and deadly effects of huffing and driving.”
More than 2.6 million children ages 12 through 17 use an inhalant each year, and a quarter of U.S. students have intentionally abused a common household product to get high by the time they reach eighth grade, ACE reported. A 2013 survey of Wisconsin high school students showed that 6 percent reported having used inhalants in their lifetimes, according to a state Department of Health Services report.
ACE, which labels inhalants the fourth-most abused substance after alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, hopes to save lives by educating people about how deadly huffing can be, in part through distribution of Inhalant Abuse Prevention Kits.
“The dangers are real, and as this tragic and deadly accident shows, the effects are not limited to the user,” Slone said, referring to the Chippewa County crash.
Killed in the Nov. 3 crash that gained national attention were Jayna Kelley, 9, and Autumn Helgeson, 10, both of Lake Hallie, and Haylee Hickle, 10, and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, 32, both of the Chippewa County town of Lafayette. Another Girl Scout, 10-year-old Madalyn Zwiefelhofer, also suffered serious injuries in the crash and remains hospitalized, according to a GoFundMe page established to help with her medical expenses.
Local law enforcement officers also pointed to the quadruple fatality as a heartbreaking example of the dangers of driving under the influence of inhalants, drugs or alcohol.
Sgt. Bill Berger of the Wisconsin State Patrol regional office in Eau Claire responded to what he called the “senseless” crash in which the victims were “doing everything right” by working off the roadway and wearing highly visible safety vests in a spot with good visibility.
“I think the problem is too many people think of these as accidents, but they’re not accidents,” Berger said. “They are crashes caused by somebody doing something they shouldn’t before they get behind the wheel.”
With the potential consequences of a traffic crash and long-term negative health effects for the person abusing inhalants, “it’s not just that short-term high they’re looking for,” he said.
Berger said drivers pulled over for huffing generally are in their teens or 20s, although older people have gotten into trouble for huffing too.
Inhalant abusers often are attracted to huffing at an early age because they believe the short-lived high makes it easier to get away with, Fisher said, but then they typically progress to other drugs.
Among the other recent high-profile huffing incidents were a 2017 case in which Serghei Kundilovski, 36, of Orangevale, Calif., was sentenced to 75 years in prison for causing a head-on collision and killing three Twin Cities men by driving the wrong way down Interstate 94 in Dunn County; a 2013 case in which Denise M. Marten, 42, of Eau Claire crashed her vehicle into City Hall to pick up a fourth round of huffing-related charges; and a 2013 case in which Brady W. Wolfe, 26, of Cornell, was convicted of homicide by negligent use of a motor vehicle after crashing into a semitrailer truck at the intersection of Melby Street and North Hastings Way in Eau Claire, killing his passenger.
Huffing presents a two-fold challenge for officers because the products being abused are legal when used for the intended purposes and the chemical evidence only stays in a user’s system for a short time, making arrests difficult before crashes occur, said Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk.
Unless something bad happens, huffing rarely comes to the attention of law enforcement, Kowalczyk said.
“Are people huffing out there? Sure they are,” he said. “But this is a different situation when you huff and get behind the wheel and as an end result we have a tragedy.”
Officers who witness erratic driving and make a traffic stop can look for evidence of huffing in the vehicle, such as aerosol cans, and in some cases evidence on the person, such as paint on the person’s face as a result of huffing from cans of spray paint, Berger said.
The State Patrol is working to get all officers trained in a national Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement program. The ARIDE program trains officers in what to observe in traffic stops to detect impairment from controlled substances.
While under the influence of the inhalants, drivers can lose awareness, judgment about safe speeds and the ability to react properly to situations they come across on the road, Berger said.
While officers are seeing an increase in cases of people driving under the influence of controlled substances, Berger said he hasn’t noticed a significant uptick in huffing cases.
“But we’ve had a couple of real tragedies here locally involving huffing,” he said, “so we’re certainly seeing the effects of it in the Chippewa Valley.”