Morbidity and mortality

There is currently no systematic collection of inhalant-associated mortality or morbidity at either a national or state/territory level in Australia (d’Abbs & MacLean, 2008). One reason is the range of methodological issues associated with the assessment of morbidity and mortality associated with VSU.

For example, volatile substance users may present to hospitals or clinics with illness such as pneumonia or injury such as burns which have volatile substance inhalation as an underlying cause and are therefore not recorded as being associated with VSU (d’Abbs & MacLean, 2008).

VSU-related hospitalisations

Data collected by the WA Department of Health shows that volatile substance-related hospitalisations accounted for 0.5% of all drug-related hospitalisations between 2015 and 2019. 

Number of VSU-related hospitalisations by Aboriginality and sex (2015-2019)

Race Males Females Total
Non-Aboriginal 83 (70.3%) 32 (64%) 115 (68.5%)
Aboriginal 35 (29.7%) 18 (36%) 53 (31.5%)
Combined 118 (100%) 50 (100%) 168 (100%)

Source: Epidemiology Branch, Department of Health. Generated using data from the WA Hospital Morbidity Data System.  Proportion of volatile substance-related hospitalisations identified by aetiological fractions.  Accessed 15 July 2021.

  • The average number of volatile substance-related hospitalisations in WA was 34 persons per year between 2015 and 2019 inclusive.
  • Of the hospitalisations for the combined population, 70.2% were male

The following table shows the percentage of volatile substance-related hospitalisations by age and sex (State: 2015 to 2019).

Sex Aged 10-14 Aged 15-24 Aged 25-44 Aged 45-64 Aged 65 and above
Male 6 (5.1%) 21 (17.8%) 47 (39.8%) 33 (28%) 11 (9.3%)
Female <5 8 (16%) 26 (52%) 10 (20%) <5

Source: Epidemiology Branch, Department of Health.  Generated using data from the WA Hospital Morbidity Data System.  Proportion of volatile substances related hospitalisations identified by aetiological fractions.  Accessed 15 July 2021.

  • The age group most frequently hospitalised due to VSU is 25-44 year olds.
  • Although the total number of volatile substance-related hospitalisations in males was greater than the number of female hospitalisations, the percentage of males aged 25-44 years affected was lower than that seen for females in WA.

VSU-related deaths

According to the Western Australia Mortality Database (2008-2018), there have been a total of 17 deaths attributed to volatile substance use from 2008 to 2018. Of these deaths 11 out of the 17 deaths (64.7%) were male. 

While there is no systematic Australian mortality data, the United Kingdom has been collecting data about VSU-related mortality since 1971. This provides insight into patterns and prevalence of use and cause of death. For example, it has repeatedly revealed that the majority of VSU-related deaths are from the inhalation of butane gas, nitrogen and aerosols. The most common methods of administration of gas fuels causing fatalities are from inhaling directly into the mouth followed by the use of a plastic bag over the head. The data also identifies that the principal mechanism of death for VSU was attributed to the direct toxic effect of the substance used.

Despite the different cultural context in which this research was conducted, the UK’s systematic collection of data over 30 years can provide some insight into VSU in Australia. For more information, see Trends in UK deaths associated with abuse of volatile substances 1971–2009.

List of related resources laid out in a table.

Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee - Inquiry into the inhalation of volatile substances: Final report

Parliament of Victoria, Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee. See Chapter 8 - Inhalant-related mortality and morbidity (pp. 86-110).

Tags Prevalence | Report

2002 DCPC-1vii

Volatile substance misuse: a review of interventions

d'Abbs, P. & MacLean, S., Department if Health and Ageing. Australian Government review examining literature about interventions designed to address volatile substance use. See Section 4.1.3 - Mortality and Morbidity (pp. 23-24).

Tags Prevalence | Publication

2008 DHA -1vi

National directions on inhalant abuse: Final report

Department of Human Services. Victoria. National Inhalant Abuse Taskforce. Considers existing initiatives, programs and strategies to address inhalant abuse in Australia and makes recommendations for a national response to inhalant abuse. See Section 1.3.4 - Mortality and Morbidity (p.6).

Tags Prevalence | Publication

2005 DHSV-3viii