Police say funeral home burglars took embalming fluid to get high in a bizarre case. NBC's Spencer Lubitz reports.
Today in misguided things young people do: Emergency physicians at Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital say they've seen a marked increase in patients -- including three teenagers this holiday weekend -- who've overdosed on embalming fluid, in what may be an unlikely casualty of the recent wave of 1990s nostalgia.
Here's what's happening: People seeking an enhanced high soak marijuana joints in, in these particular cases, formaldehyde, for the secondary effects. "Embalming fluid burns more slowly than the marijuana would if it were not treated," says Dr. Bret Nicks, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C. This technique causes what can be an intense hallucinatory effect.
Nicks explains that the first time emergency physicians saw cases of formaldehyde overdoses was in the early 1990s. "It’s crazy that this is coming around again," explains Nicks, who's also the public relations committee chair for the American College of Emergency Physicians. "It’s interesting what people do, creatively. Apparently, someone read something and thought, Hey, this is what they did back in the 90s -- this sounds cheap!"
To be fair, we're really talking about just a handful of scattered cases at this point. Nicks says he's seen just two cases in the last year related to formaldehyde-laced marijuana. And according to our Texas NBC affiliate pals at KRIS, three teens were treated at CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial after inhaling too much formaldehyde. Also in the Texas town, police are investigating two burglaries at a funeral home -- in both cases, the only thing stolen was formaldehyde.
"I have been in this industry 32 years and I have never had a problem in the funeral industry. In fact most people treat our establishment and funeral homes in general as a place of reverance," says Ron Alonzo, the owner of the funeral home.
Alonzo fears the burglary was an inside job, considering the thieves got a hold of the embalming fluid very quickly without being caught. A window was smashed and set off an alarm leaving the thieves only two minutes before police arrived. The owner says they bypassed all the electronics in the business and went straight for the formaldehyde before leaving.
As Nicks explains, you should avoid this particular '90s revival. "The downside with formaldehyde -- you're looking at toxic psychosis and hallucinations that are not dissimilar to what we'd see with PCP," says Nicks, who adds panic, paranoia and loss of consciousness to the souped-up drug's deleterious effects.
In the short term, people have reported blurred vision and persistent headaches -- but there just haven't been enough studies to determine the potential damage to users' central nervous systems in the long-term. But a few case reports published in the early 90s describe people for whom the formaldehyde-laced joints trigger underlying psychiatric disorders, including "schizophrenia-like" conditions.
"The enhanced high, suffice to say, comes with increased risk," Nicks says.
Follow msnbc.com health writer Melissa Dahl on Twitter @melissadahl.
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