ANNAPOLIS, Md. (WUSA9) -- Tears fill Kathryn Conley's eyes when she remembers her daughter Malia Manning 'before.' She describes her as a carefree little girl who grew up to be an extroverted young woman who loved to laugh, surrounded by friends.
That was before addiction grabbed hold and never let go.
According to her family, Malia was found dead behind a Walmart store in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was surrounded by cans of the compressed-gas electronics cleaner "Dust Off," which her family says she inhaled to get high.
"Fifteen cans," says Kathryn Conley. "She was found by a bagel delivery guy behind two bushes, covered by a blanket."
Malia's uncle Ken Conley describes the danger of inhalant abuse as akin to playing Russian roulette.
"It can kill you the first time, or the fortieth time," he says. "There's no sense of, 'how much is too much.'"
Malia's family says she was first introduced to huffing by a former boyfriend. It is a quick way to get high by inhaling chemical products like paint or cleaners, temporarily cutting off oxygen to the brain. However, the intoxication is fleeting, and many users begin huffing more and more to maintain the high. To say it is dangerous is an understatement, and many parents never suspect this addiction. It can cause sudden death.
"No one thinks you can go underneath your sink and get some chemical and huff and die. You think of people doing pills, smoking marijuana, you think of alcohol. But never inhalants...never," says Kathryn Conley.
But once Malia was hospitalized in January 2013 in Prince William County following a three-day huffing binge, her family sought out a rehab facility and sent her there to Florida. Kathryn says Malia relapsed once, but then made it through the program and was living in a 'sober' group home, trying to get her life back on track. But after a doctor's appointment one day this past July, she stopped answering phone calls and texts. Those who loved her feared the worst.
"Deep down inside, I knew it would happen... one day. As much as we tried to save her," says her mom.
Ken Conley believes the accessibility of these products is part of the problem. Instead of keeping compressed gas dusters for PC's and other electronics at home, he suggests using an inexpensive air pump that inflates exercise balls to clean computer keyboards. A makeup brush can also clean off computer keys. When it comes to the sale of potential inhalants, the Conleys believe certain steps would make them harder to abuse.
"You can put them behind the counter. You can require an ID, (so people have to) be over 18 to purchase the products. Put them in blister packs, which would make them harder to open, harder to access," says Ken Conley.
Kathryn Conley says Malia denied her addiction, even when confronted with empty Dust-Off cans in their Annapolis home. A grieving mother now shares a story no parent wants to tell, in hopes of saving someone else.
Kathryn Conley says of her daughter, "She is keeping me strong, to carry through. Because we want to help so many people."
The family has established a fund called "Malia's Hope." Ken Conley says it was created to provide "direct grants to non-profits, schools, faith-based organizations and other programs that address the disease of addiction." Donations are accepted here: www.cfnova.org/malia
Dust-Off is just one brand of the canned electronics dusters that are sometimes abused. On the product's label, the manufacturer states that a bittering agent has been added to discourage inhalant abuse. Other common inhalants include whipped cream cans, glue products, shoe polish and paint solvents.
According to Inhalant.org, signs of abuse include:
- Drunk, dazed, or dizzy appearance
- Slurred or disoriented speech
- Red or runny eyes and nose
- Spots and/or sores around the mouth
- Unusual breath odor or chemical odor on clothing
- Signs of paint or other products where they wouldn't't normally be, such as on face, lips, nose or fingers