Government of Western Australia Drug and Alcohol Office

Butane

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The WA Taskforce on Butane Misuse

In July 2006, the Minister for Health established the WA Taskforce on Butane Misuse. The role of the taskforce was to investigate the extent of problems associated with the misuse of butane, together with the potential strategies to reduce the supply, demand and harm associated with butane misuse.

The WA Taskforce on Butane Misuse: Report and Recommendations (PDF 360KB) comprises a comprehensive investigation into butane misuse, its harms, the prevalence and patterns of use in Western Australia, and the benefits and risks of potential strategies.

The taskforce proposed a 10-point plan of action across a range of areas from policing to education and emergency responses to treatment, to reduce the harms caused by butane misuse in Western Australia, including:

  1. Legislation - to police supply effectively
  2. Policing - to support local communities
  3. Voluntary retailer action – to restrict supply
  4. Education - targeted to young people, parents and professionals
  5. Media coverage - to avoid inadvertently advertising products for misuse
  6. Product safety - to monitor opportunities for improvement
  7. Emergency responses - to vigorously promote the right responses by young people
  8. Treatment - to be made available when it is needed
  9. Monitoring and research - to target strategies
  10. Organisation and co-ordination - to ensure action occurs.

While butane was the primary focus of the Taskforce, many of the recommendations apply more broadly to volatile substance use and young people in general. As butane is one of the most dangerous volatile substances with respect to the risk of death, particularly sudden death, it remains the focus of many broader volatile substance use strategies that have since been implemented.

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What is butane?

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.

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Availability

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).

Therefore, products containing butane are widely available from a range of retail outlets including supermarkets, newsagencies, delicatessens, tobacconists, hardware stores, camping stores and discount retail outlets.

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 What is VSU? page of this website.

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Harms

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/arrest 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.

Sudden sniffing 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 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 propellant gases, when released, 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 more information about how to reduce harms, see the Harm Reduction page of this website.

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Butane and the law

Possession and use of butane, like other volatile substances is not illegal as the products themselves are not illegal substances. However, it is illegal under Section 206 of the WA Criminal Code 1913, to sell or supply volatile substances to someone where it is reasonable to suspect that they will use it for intoxication purposes.

A Code of Conduct - Supply of Volatile Substances has been developed which encourages retailers to display butane products out of the reach of customers and to be particularly aware when selling butane products to minors. For more information, see the Retailers and industry page of this website.

The Protective Custody Act (2000) allows police to take an intoxicated person to a safe place or place them into protective custody until a parent, guardian or responsible adult has been located. It also allows police to confiscate intoxicating substances from juveniles.

For more information, see the Law page of this website.

Date last modified  - 11 March 2013

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