Butane turned our girl into a lying, filthy thief

Lighter fuel, cheap and easy to buy, kills 11 times more people than E, reports Ros Wynne-Jones
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Jodie Hyde was 13, she decided to sniff some butane gas from a cigarette lighter refill can, "because I was always one for trying to be brave". Jodie's relationship with butane never ended. For the past five years she has constantly carried a can, hidden in her sleeve. When she goes to sleep at night, she holds the can by her face.

Her best friend died after inhaling butane. Her grandmother regularly removes binliners full of cans from her bedroom.

Butane-gas abuse is the hidden addiction. While ecstasy and heroin grab the headlines, thousands of young people such as Jodie are having their lives ruined by a substance available in every corner shop in Britain.

For every one ecstasy death, 11 people die from inhaling volatile chemicals found in domestic consumer products. According to Home Office statistics, 68 people died from volatile-substance abuse in 1995 and 38 of those deaths were directly attributed to cigarette lighter refill canisters. Between 1971 and 1995 there were 1,520 deaths associated with solvent and volatile-substance abuse, with 70 per cent aged between nine and 19, and 40 per cent taking their first sniff. A can of the lethal toxic chemical butane costs just 75p.

Jodie and her family have cooperated with a BBC documentary, Home Ground - The Trouble With Jodie, to expose the effects of gas abuse. The Hydes say it has turned Jodie into a "monster", an 18-year-old Jekyll and Hyde. Jodie feels guilty about the death of her best friend, Samantha, and hates her addiction, but says she cannot come off butane.

To feed her 24-hour-a-day habit she begs, steals and lies. Her family periodically have to turn her out of their Birmingham home because there are younger children in the family and Jodie will not live in the house without her can of lighter gas.

"Jodie loves life," says her mother. "She's just a lovable young girl ... she's helpful round the house, she'd do anything for anybody." But the Hyde family seldom see that Jodie nowadays. "The Jodie on the gas is nasty and she can be violent. She'll put windows through ... she threw a brick at me once. When she's normal she wants help. But when you go to give it to her, she's so high she doesn't want it."

Jodie says she typically begs until she makes about pounds 15, then buys a 12-can crate of butane gas - enough to keep an average cigarette smoker in filled lighters for about six years.

It is illegal to sell butane to someone you reasonably suspect may be abusing it, but the maximum penalty - pounds 5,000 per can sold, or six months' jail - is rarely imposed. The BBC sent a 15-year-old boy into a number of shops in Birmingham to buy cans of butane, and every shop he visited was willing to sell him several cans. One shop sold him 24.

In a period when she believed she had come off the gas for good, Jodie said: "I wish I could get through to people [about the dangers of butane]. I'm the lucky one. I'm alive. I have been in hospital so many times because of my breathing ... other people have died. I do get chest pains and I do find it hard to breathe. It will take a long time to heal up - if it does heal up.

"All [shopkeepers] care about is the money. As soon as I go in a shop, they know exactly what I want."

Positive steps are being taken by the companies that sell butane gas and other volatile substances and solvents. The industry funds a charity, Re-Solv, which works to prevent abuse and is calling for a ban on the sale of lighter gas to under-16s. Ronson, the leading manufacturer, says it is developing 25ml cans to make it harder to abuse the substance and to obtain a fatal dose.

In 1994, the government cut all funding, previously worth pounds 33,000 a year, to Re-Solv. Requests for new funding have been declined. "Every project we have requested funds for, from a telephone helpline to a parents' support pack, have been turned down," says a spokesman. "We are asking the new government to reverse the decision."

For Jodie, seen so optimistically at the end of the film telling the camera she is off the gas, these measures may already be too late. Since the documentary was made, she has become a registered heroin addict. Her grandmother, Margaret Hyde, says she fears Jodie, who last week ran away from a drug rehabilitation centre, may now have turned to prostitution in order to fund her new habit.

"Last week she came round and stole my video and sold it for pounds 30," she said last night. "The methadone programme is not working - she just drinks her dose in the chemist and then looks for heroin. She is so thin I can hardly recognise her. And filthy - Jodie was always so clean. But Jodie is still taking a can of gas with her wherever she goes."

Her family, who cannot afford a private clinic for Jodie, fear she may soon be dead. Yesterday, no one knew where Jodie was.

Home Ground: The Trouble With Jodie, will be screened on BBC2 on Tuesday, 2 September, at 7.30pm