Sanders drowning

Racine County Sheriff’s deputies and other personnel investigate the death of 15-year-old Austin Sanders on Sept. 20, 2017. The teen’s body was recovered that morning from a pond in a Kansasville subdivision. His death was later attributed to huffing chemicals.

RACINE COUNTY — On Nov. 3, three Girl Scouts and one Girl Scouts’ mother died in Chippewa County after a driver who had allegedly been inhaling chemical vapors — also known as huffing — swerved off the road and hit them as they collected trash as part of a service project.

Huffing is a dangerous behavior to which Racine County has not been immune, say Sheriff Christopher Schmaling and Medical Examiner Michael Payne.

Since 2014, Racine County has had two documented deaths directly related to huffing chemicals, according to Payne.

In May 10, 2014, 24-year-old Robert Walter died after he was huffing in a boat in the Root River in Raymond, collapsed and fell into the river.

On Sept. 20, 2017, 15-year-old Austin Sanders of Kansasville died after he was reportedly huffing, collapsed and fell into a pond.

Evidence of huffing chemicals was found in their systems, according to autopsy results, Payne said.

Schmaling said that in addition to those deaths, there have been crashes here related to huffing, including one crash he recalls in which the driver was seen putting a chemical up to his mouth not long before crashing.

He said he has talked to parents who have caught their children huffing chemicals.

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Signs and symptoms

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, huffing is addictive and can lead to a loss of sensation and unconsciousness.

Schmaling said: “If you look at the opioid epidemic we are experiencing, people are taking pills. If they don’t get the pills, it’s the high that they want, they are going to chase the next new high. That becomes whatever they have available to them, whether it be heroin, huffing or fentanyl, anything else they can get their hands on to get that next new high.

“We have seen some young people who are experimenting. Is it an epidemic? No. But if parents are not talking to their kids and we are not making it known that this is deadly … you can lose your life.”

Signs families can look out for include chemical odors, paint or other stains on face, hands or clothing, hidden spray bottles or chemical-soaked rags, a drunken appearance, nausea or loss of appetite.

The inhalants produce a high that resembles alcohol intoxication followed by drowsiness.

“Is it an epidemic? No. But if parents are not talking to their kids and we are not making it known that this is deadly … you can lose your life.” Christopher Schmaling, Racine County Sheriff

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Managing Editor

Stephanie Jones is the managing editor for The Journal Times. To stay informed about what is going on in Racine County, subscribe at journaltimes.com/subscribenow. It's only about 10 cents per day for a digital subscription.