A closer look at "huffing" after fatal hit-and-run crash in Chippewa County

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CHIPPEWA COUNTY, Wis. (WEAU) -- The tragic hit-and-run crash that killed four people in Chippewa County last week is not the first local case of huffing while driving.

Local officials say “huffing” or intentionally inhaling chemical fumes is becoming more common and they’re warning of the dangers. "Huffing is an inhalant that people use. You can get it from a spray bottle and there are different solvents that people can put on rags,” said Eddie Stefonek, Registered Nurse in the Emergency Department at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire.

Local health officials say huffing is a dangerous practice for the person doing it and those around them, last weekend's hit-and-run crash in Chippewa County that killed three local Girl Scouts and a parent being the most recent example. Colten Treu, 21, of Chippewa Falls faces 11 counts, including homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle. Records show Treu has a history of huffing while driving.

Another highly recognized case includes Serghei Kundilovski, 36, who in April was sentenced to 75 years in prison for driving the wrong way on I-94, killing three men in 2017. Similar to the recent Chippewa County incident, Troopers say the driver was huffing before the crash.

"Through an investigation of the vehicle and looking through the contents, Troopers located these two cans found in the floor board," said Sergeant Jason Bakken of Wisconsin State Patrol.

Officials say because they are legal and easily accessible household products, inhalants are the most commonly abused drug categories.

Researchers say many Americans are addicted to huffing and huffing before getting behind the wheel is becoming more common. "This is a trend we're seeing in teenagers where they don’t necessarily have the money to go out and buy the material for that quick high they're looking form” said Sgt. Bakken.

Depending on what chemical is being inhaled or huffed, the side effects can be extremely dangerous. "You can be shaky, muscle trimmers, sweating, palpitations, you can actually go into withdrawals from huffing including seizers,” said Stefonek.

Stefonek adds that huffing can easily turn into an addiction. “The more you do it, the higher your tolerance rate will go up, often like alcohol or opioid usage, you’re going to have to do more and more until you get that high,” he said. He says that “high” is short lasting. “It only lasts for about 15-20 minutes and people will often search to do it again,” said Stefonek.

Both Sergeant Bakken and Stefonek are warning of the dangers huffing poses to teens. Both recommend parents take notice to strange behaviors in their children. They say pay attention to missing household items that could be used for huffing or rags and other items often used to inhale chemicals.

The long term side effects of huffing include liver and brain damage. When it comes to impaired driving, the Lake Hallie Police Department says huffing can be difficult to detect. Health officials say huffing doesn’t show up on traditional drug tests. Many agencies including the Wisconsin State Patrol are now focused on educating its departments are how to get proactive.

Officials with Wisconsin State Patrol say drug impaired driving arrested have increased in the past several years but with its Advanced Road Side Impaired Driving Enforcement Training or ARIDE, patrol officers are gaining experience in on how to identify the warning signs.