Butane is a hydrocarbon and a highly flammable, colourless, odourless, easily liquefied gas. It is typically used as fuel for cigarette lighters and portable stoves, a propellant in aerosols, a heating fuel, a refrigerant, and in the manufacture of a wide range of products. Butane is also found in Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG).
Since 1987, hydrocarbons have replaced chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as the propellant used in most aerosols. Butane is one of the commonly used propellants in household and industrial aerosols and therefore can be found in numerous aerosol products. However, the packaging of many aerosols products will commonly identify the propellant as ‘hydrocarbon’, not specifically identifying butane.
Butane is available in products such as cigarette lighters, cigarette lighter refills and a wide range of aerosol sprays. Cigarette lighter refill cans are the most commonly misused butane product along with cigarette lighters and butane cartridges (used for portable stoves).
Some other aerosols are also misused specifically for the propellant rather than the contents, such as vegetable oil cooking sprays.
For information about the effects of butane, see Effects page of this website.
Butane is regarded as one of the more harmful volatile substances to inhale.
Butane gas can cause what is known as ‘sudden sniffing death’, which occurs as a result of cardiac arrhythmia or cardiac arrest (heart attack) if the person is stressed or does heavy exercise during or soon after using. Butane sensitises the heart to the effects of adrenalin to the point where sudden exercise or alarm can cause a cardiac arrest (d’Abbs and MacLean, 2000).
For this reason it is important not to chase or frighten people who may be using butane.
Death from butane can occur from the direct toxic effects, cardiac effects (i.e. ventricular fibrillation, cardiac arrest), or central nervous system (CNS) depression (e.g. respiratory depression).
The majority of volatile substance-related deaths are associated with aerosols or gas fuels, such as butane or propane, many of which are from sudden sniffing death.
Death can also be caused by the method of use. Spraying directly into the mouth can cause the larynx to go into spasm, blocking off the air supply to the lungs and causing suffocation. This is because when released, propellant gases are at an extremely low temperature.
Other harms related to butane include injuries due to accidents or taking risks while intoxicated. There is also a risk of serious burn injury from fire or explosion as butane is highly flammable.
High levels of use within a short period of time can lead to depressed breathing and loss of consciousness. In this state, a person using butane is at risk of choking if they vomit.
For information about how to reduce harms, see the Reducing VSU harm page of this website.
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Taskforce on Butane Misuse. Report and recommendations of the WA Taskforce on Butane Misuse, established in 2006.