Petrol sniffing is an issue for many people living in remote indigenous communities across Australiai. Specially designed to reduce this form of inhalant abuse, some petrol providers offer low aromatic substitutes for regular unleaded 91.
Recognising the very serious health risks associated with petrol sniffing, the Australian Government supports the use of Opal fuel as part of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy, which aims to reduce the incidence and impact of petrol sniffing amongst indigenous youth and communities in specific areas across Australiaii. Opal fuel (manufactured by BP Australia) and Shell's Unleaded 91 Low Aromatic fuel are unleaded, low aromatic direct substitutes for regular unleaded petrol with an octane rating of 91iii,iv.
Replacing most of the aromatic compounds (such as benzene, toluene and xylene) in regular unleaded petrol with non-aromatic compounds, low aromatic fuels are designed to reduce the narcotic effect induced from sniffing petrol and to discourage sniffingi,v.
Conforming to the National Fuels Quality Standards Act 2000, low aromatic fuel has replaced regular unleaded 91 fuel at selected sites throughout Central Australia. As a direct substitute for regular unleaded fuel with an octane rating of 91, both Opal fuel and Unleaded 91 Low Aromatic fuel can safely be mixed with the regular unleaded 91 already in your tanki,iv. However, they are not suitable for vehicles that require a premium unleaded fuel with an octane rating of 95 or highervi. As Opal fuel is subsidised under the Australian Government's Petrol Sniffing Prevention Programme, its price is similar to the local rate of regular unleaded 91i.
Health risks associated with petrol sniffing
In 1997, it was estimated that about 200 young people were sniffing petrol across 10 communities in Central Australiavii
. Unleaded petrol contains traces of lead and volatile hydrocarbons, which are rapidly absorbed and distributed through the body and into the brain, causing euphoria and an intoxication similar to alcoholxiii
. The addictive habit affects a user's health, family, community and personal relationshipsviii
Affecting the central nervous system, the circulatory and respiratory system, symptoms of intoxication include excitement, restlessness, misperceptions, illusions, visual hallucinations, a sense of invulnerability and often aggression. Prolonged inhalation of petrol may lead to paranoia, loss of consciousness, coma, seizures and death. Chronic users are more prone to develop encephalopathy (brain disorders) and neurobehavioural changes, and risk permanent neurocognitive impairmentvii.
The impact of Opal fuel
While Shell announced to become a new supplier of low aromatic fuel in December 2012v, Opal fuel has been made available from 106 sites across regional and remote areas in Australia since 2005ii. An evaluation report written for the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing in 2008 revealed that in 17 out of the 20 communities analysed, the prevalence of petrol sniffing has declined. The largest decrease was observed in Central Australia and the APY lands of South Australia, with 94% and 93% decreases respectivelyix.
The number of people sniffing has most significantly dropped among heavy, regular user groups (90%), leading to a comparable substantial decrease in the negative social impact caused by sniffing in communities in the sampleix. Study results and qualitative feedback from community members suggest that the decrease of the prevalence of sniffing can be attributed - at least in part - to the introduction and use of Opal fuelix.
i BP Australia, 2012, Information on Opal fuel, http://www.opalfuel.com.au/page.cfm/what-is-opal/information-on-opal-fuel
ii Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, 2012, Petrol Sniffing Strategy, http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/our-responsibilities/indigenous-australians/programs-services/communities-regions/petrol-sniffing-strategy
iii Department of Health and Aging, 2012, Low aromatic fuel, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/stoppetrolsniffing/publishing.nsf/Content/opal-fuel-1
iv Shell, Shell Unleaded 91 Low Aromatic FAQs, http://www.shell.com.au/products-services/on-the-road/fuels/low-aromatic.html
v Parliament of Australia, Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd1213a/13bd068
vi BP Australia, 2012, Opal fuel in cars, http://www.opalfuel.com.au/page.cfm/opal-fuel-in-cars/about-opal-for-cars
vii NT Government, Petrol, http://www.nt.gov.au/health/healthdev/health_promotion/bushbook/volume2/chap1/petrol.htm
viii Department of Health and Aging, 2013, Illicit Drugs - When boys and men sniff, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/phd-petrol-sniffing-boys-men
ix Department of Health and Aging, 2008, Evaluation of the impact of Opal fuel: executive summary, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/stoppetrolsniffing/publishing.nsf/Content/sniffing-pubs-opalimp