Reports of petrol sniffing in Central Australia rise as children misuse low aromatic Opal fuel

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After years of successful efforts to tackle petrol sniffing, a prominent youth worker says young people in a Central Australian community have started abusing the fuel that was supposed to keep them safe.

Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS) co-director Tristan Ray said 33 youngsters from Papunya, 250 kilometers west of Alice Springs, had been referred to Territory Families for sniffing fuel at low aromatic content.

Isolated incidents have also been reported in surrounding communities.

Mr Ray said the youths identified were between 10 and 13 years old.

CAYLUS successfully campaigned for the introduction of a low aromatic fuel – Opal – in Central Australia to stop snorting in 2005, but Mr Ray said the petrol was now being abused.

He believed young people used the substance to become hypoxic, where the gas replaced oxygen in their bodies.

The community’s gas tank was locked overnight in response.

“Some testimonies” from witnesses said the youngsters were not “obviously intoxicated” but were losing consciousness, according to Mr Ray.

“Any form of sniffing is really dangerous,” he said.

MacDonnell Regional Council General Manager Jeff MacLeod referred to reports of sniffles in the community following a wave of crime in the community this week.

Security for bowsers in Papunya has been tightened in response to reports.(ABC News: Claire Campbell)

“Raw Nerve”

According to a 2009 Senate report, 600 people in the central desert regularly snorted in 2006, leaving a large cohort of people with long-term brain damage.

At the time, CAYLUS said 100 people in Papunya regularly abused the substance.

In 2008, the same report found that the number of regular users in the area had been reduced by more than 70% following the introduction of Opal fuel, which is more expensive to produce but does not give users a high.

Mr Ray said Opal had made a difference, but he could see the ‘window of opportunity’ to tackle the underlying causes of petrol sniffing might be closing.

“This is very upsetting behavior for these families in Papunya, who have seen utter destruction because of the sniffle in the past,” he said.

“It’s so upsetting for these families to see their children behaving this way.”

A sign warning of the dangers of gasoline sniffing.
Opal helped reduce gasoline sniffing when introduced in 2005.(ABC News: Jano Gibson)

Mr Ray said a number of young people involved in the sniffing were currently suspected of having fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but could not be diagnosed.

“They have a lot to do,” he said.

Reflecting on the success of Opal fuel so far, Mr Ray, who was involved in its introduction in 2005, said his service and others had been “pushing hard” to prevent substance abuse among young people through programs to youth and community services.

“But we’re falling flat there,” he said.

An older man with a nice white beard stands smiling in the bush.
Tristan Ray says youth services are struggling with funding cuts.(Provided: Tristan Ray)

Extended services

Mr Ray said the Prevention of Inhalant Abuse Act meant that young people involved in sniffing could be forced by a magistrate into rehab.

But due to COVID-related labor issues, there weren’t enough services to keep up with demand.

He said some young people have started moving through the system despite the lack of places.

“It’s not fast,” Mr. Ray said.

He said CAYLUS is also working with the families of the youth, the MacDonnell Regional Council Youth Program and families in the territory to find other solutions.

“We ask, ‘Can they go to boarding school? Can they go and stay with another family somewhere else? Can they go hang out at a remote station? “, He said.

In a statement, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) was meeting weekly with community stakeholders to address rising drug abuse.

He said $116,000 in additional federal funding went to Papunya, earmarked for at-risk youth.

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