Irresponsible Reporting by US News
US News is acting irresponsibly in half reporting on an unidentified “article” that appeared in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health on the topic of harmful effects of using new formulations of nitrites, referred to as “poppers” in street slang.
They make a number of radical claims about the physical and psychological effects of inhaling “more dangerous “huffing” solvents that pose serious health risks.”
US News does not even cite the specific article in its report. They even imply that gay men are not aware enough of their actions to be duped into dangerous activity. The most pressing issue is that they do not clarify that the chemicals being sold are not “poppers” but are masquerading as poppers.
Clearly, this type of reporting leads to misinformation about “poppers”, as well as risks being associated with more dangerous compounds being linked to alkyl nitrite poppers. To an uninformed public, the headline and the article imply they are one and the same. They do a disservice to the public and the gay community by not referencing the article, and the study.
Searching for the Source Article on Poppers
Deeper research into the expert who wrote the article and the topic results in finding an article entitled “Gay Men & Poppers: A Love Story” that fills in the blanks left in the original article.
A search for the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health results in finding an abstract of the original study reporting the finding of psychiatrist and authority on LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) behavior and issues, Dr. Timothy Hall of the University of California, Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the full article, “Sometimes Poppers Are Not Poppers: Huffing as an Emergent Health Concern Among MSM Substance Users” is restricted to one willing to pay $125 to get the full report.
That is not exactly transparency. The crux of the article as reported in “Gay Men & Poppers: A Love Story” is that, according to Dr. Hall, new substances that can be damaging and lethal are being masqueraded as “poppers”. What originally appeared to be a slam against authentic poppers and the gay men who may use them recreationally is actually a cautionary statement that elucidates a potentially dangerous situation.
Misassociation of Alkyl Nitrites with Dangerous Solvents
The US News article does not give specifics about the claim, but simply states, “New types of inhaled recreational drugs called “poppers” can contain harmful solvents and propellants that are extremely dangerous, researchers warn.”
Calling them poppers does not make them alkyl nitrite poppers. An uniformed reader would not be sophisticate enough to know that. They would likely conclude, as reported in US News, that poppers are killing people.
Dr. Hall’s report clarifies his concern, “While men who have sex with men (MSM) in North America have commonly used alkyl nitrite “poppers,” related to the vasodilator amyl nitrite, in sexual contexts since at least the 1970s, they do not have a significant history of using solvent or propellant inhalants, known as “huffing.”
This may be changing, with some solvents being marketed as a “new form of poppers.” Huffing solvents carries considerably more health risk than using alkyl nitrite poppers, but this may not be recognized by clinicians, who usually have little knowledge of either, or MSM, who do not have a cultural history of huffing.” The article is describing a far more serious issue than poppers. These include huffing aerosols, refrigerants, and other caustic compounds.
It turns out that the substance being inaccurately dubbed “poppers” consists of aerosols and chemicals used to freeze blemishes off people’s skin. According to Jim Larkin’s in “Gay Men and Poppers: a Love Story“, “It’s the same class of products as what’s sold as computer duster—or the local anesthesia a doctor uses before removing a skin tag. Some users report that contrary to the enhanced sensations of poppers, chloroethane products actually deaden sensations. As they are marketed en masse to the gay community, many men will be introduced to these dangerous products through sexual partners without realizing the danger they’re in.”
Unscrupulous Businessmen Duping Poppers Users
This is not a slam on the gay men who may use poppers recreationally, and off label as defined by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, but rather an indictment of unscrupulous business men who are endangering unsuspecting users of what they believe to be traditional poppers by marketing counterfeit “poppers” products.
The US News article indicates that there is little research on poppers. That is a true statement. They say, “They’re little more than a footnote at the back of most addiction textbooks, lumped in with sniffing glue and huffing aerosols, even though the physiologic effects are quite different.” They fail to point out that is because alkyl nitrites have been proven not to be addictive.
What Does the Research Say About Akyl Nitrite Popper Effects?
This researcher attempted to locate current research on the negative impacts of inhaling alkyl nitrites in the US governments research system. Several searches were undertaken through the Research Participation Programs at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) using the Search Parameters: Amyl nitrites, Alkyl nitrites, nitrite inhalants for the years from 2010 to 2016 in order to assess the current state of research on this topic.
Each successive search achieved a “no results” response. Clearly, no one in the federal level of scholarship is researching the negative impacts of inhaling nitrites. Most of the research available is regarding volatile substances.
Drugabuse.gov’s 1992 monograph “Inhalant Abuse: A volatile Research Agenda” addresses this difficulty, “The study of the abuse of volatile solvents is hampered by a number of factors not usually found in the study of other drugs of abuse. Consequently, the quality of the research data is very uneven, and many contradictory findings appear in the literature.” Among these is that most drugs are classified and discussed by the effects they create on the user: uppers, downer, psychedelics, tranquilizers, etc. The monolith clarifies,
“The term ‘inhalants,’ however, has come to encompass a group of psychoactive chemicals that are defined by the route of administration rather than by their experienced effects or central nervous system (CNS) action. Thus, such diverse substances as toluene, ether, and the nitrites have been included under the rubric of inhalants because they are all taken in through the nose. This can lead to a great deal of confusion, since not only may the psychoactive properties be different, but the profiles of the typical users of the various substances are quite diverse.”
They continue, “The most common case of overinclusion occurs with amyl and butyl nitrites. These are very often considered the equivalent of industrial and household solvents and little distinction is made between the users of each type of substance. In a very large national data base collected over the past 3 years, we have been able to show significant differences between nitrite users and those who use common household solvents.”
Misinformation Perpetuates Stigma of Gay Men
Clearly, confusion created by including alkyl nitrites perpetuates the stigma experienced by alkyl nitrite poppers.
The US News article even implies that gay men are not aware enough of their actions to be duped into dangerous activity. They say, “Gay and bisexual men, on the other hand, have little exposure to huffing, but tend to think of nitrite poppers as fairly benign,” he added. “There’s a real risk here for [gay men] to be taking a much more harmful substance than they’re expecting, and for clinicians not to recognize the difference.”
On its face, the statement implies that the gay and bi-sexual users are not astute and easily persuaded to use what the article is calling “poppers” when, in reality, they are saying not that the gays are unaware or not in control of their behavior, but that they can be served a much more lethal product unawares. That is a wholly different story, especially since most gays, and attending physicians may not even be aware of the presence of chloroethane. That is, indeed a scary thought!
More Informed and Complete Reporting is Necessary
Through incomplete reporting and analysis of the article, US News continues to perpetuate the spread of inaccurate information about alkyl nitrite poppers. Through innuendo and unsupportable comparisons, information about other more dangerous products are presented as if they relate to poppers.
Studying the details, however, would lead the reader to the same conclusions this writer achieved: inhaling products that contain chloroethane and other harsh chemical products can cause harm to the careless recreational user.
Larkin presents some wise advise, “If you do find yourself on a popper purchasing quest, doing a quick web search on the safety of the listed ingredients can take some of the mystery out of your shopping spree.
Of course, if you accept poppers from anyone other than a licensed retailer, there is no guarantee as to the ingredients within, an ultimately dangerous proposition.”