A woman whose body was found in Mill Lake Park in July died from inhaling the contents of “gas duster” used to clean electronic equipment, police announced on Tuesday.
Abbotsford Police Const. Ian MacDonald said six cans of the compressed gas were found by the woman when investigators arrived at the scene on July 30.
The body of the woman, later identified as a 36-year-old Mission resident, was discovered at about 6 a.m. that day by a person walking their dog in a forested area of the park at Emerson Street and Bevan Avenue.
There has been widespread speculation in the community that the woman was murdered, and MacDonald said police had to await autopsy and toxicology results before they could reveal the actual cause of death.
Those results were only recently released to police, confirming that the woman died of exposure to difluoroethane gas – one of the main components in compressed gas dusters.
MacDonald said many people assume the products – used to clean keyboards and electronic equipment – contain only “canned air” and are harmless to inhale.
However, the products contain chemicals such as tetrafluoroethan and difluoroethane, which can have devastating effects on the lungs, central nervous system and brain when inhaled, he said.
The practice of inhaling canned computer cleaners is referred to as “dusting.”
MacDonald said this is the first time the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) has investigated such a death.
He said even people within the APD were surprised to hear that dusters can be used in a way similar to the “huffing” of products such as cooking spray and glue.
MacDonald said police hope releasing the information serves as an awareness message to the public and to retailers who might want to limit the sale of the product – for example, to kids.
He said it is an important message to disseminate, particularly to people who might think there is no harm in “dusting.”
“It might have made our victim high. It also made her dead,” MacDonald said.
He said it’s not clear exactly why the woman went to Mill Lake Park to inhale the products. Police do not believe anyone was with her at the time of her death.
He said she had come to Abbotsford the day before and had left the place where she was staying.
MacDonald said the victim, who had recently moved to B.C., does not fit the stereotypical image of someone who is “marginalized” and would seek this type of method to get high.
“She was in regular contact with out-of-province family and lived in a home with her two dogs.”
He said it’s not clear exactly how much product the woman had ingested to cause her death.
“It’s probably different for different people … I don’t think it’s the roll of the dice you want to take.”
Few statistics are available on inhalant deaths, but the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) states that most users are between the ages of 10 and 16, although chronic solvent users are usually in their 20s.
The CAMH indicates that a 2011 survey of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 reported that 5.6 per cent had sniffed glue or solvents at least once in the past year.
A 2004 survey of Canadians 15 years and older reported that 1.3 per cent had used inhalants at least once in their lifetime, according to the CAMH.
Brian Gross, executive director of Impact Youth Substance Abuse Services in Abbotsford, said that in a 2009 “developmental assets” study conducted by the school district, 10 per cent of youth indicated they had sniffed or inhaled substances to get high once or more in the previous 30 days.
Eight per cent of Mission youth indicated the same thing.
Gross said this was the only form of drug use that was higher in Abbotsford than in Mission.
One of the more high-profile huffing deaths occurred in July of this year involving an American actress, Skye McCole Bartusiak, 21, who died from an accidental overdose possibly linked to dusting.
Her autopsy results indicated she had died due to the “combined toxic effects of hydrocodone and difluoroethane with carisoprodol.”
Due to inhalant abuse, a bitterant – a chemical that makes a product smell or taste bitter – is added to dusters and other toxic substances to discourage inhalation or ingestion.