ESSEX – The calendar in the boy’s room is turned to June 1996. His socks are still under his bed. His open book bag, still full of books, hangs from a corner of his bed. The room seems frozen in time.
On June 27, Catherine Foehrkolb walked into her son’s room and knew he was dead. “I went to wake him up and I saw that his rib area was blue,” Foehrkolb said. “I felt like a grizzly bear had torn my heart out.”
Pete Tringali died from inhaling butane gas — lighter fluid — from a canister, a practice known commonly as huffing. He was one month short of his 16th birthday.
Now, the still grieving Foehrkolb has the support of Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore County, who is sponsoring a bill in the Maryland General Assembly prohibiting the sale of butane gas to minors.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, abuse of such common substances as nail polish remover, glue, butane gas and air freshener is on the rise among young people ages 10 through 24. Experts say as many as one in every five students has sniffed or huffed by the time they reach seventh grade.
Foehrkolb said that a week after Pete’s death she went to a convenience store a block away to see where they kept the butane gas canisters.
“It was down the candy aisle,” Foehrkolb said. “It was only $1.69 and there is no age restriction for buying it.”
Collins got involved because he’s a former teacher, and worked with children Pete’s age. “He wants to work against substance abuse, for kids,” said Larry Kimmel, his aide.
Foehrkolb said parents cannot say to themselves that their children are too smart to be inhalant abusers. Pete had a gifted IQ of 129.
“They have to assume their children are going to do this because this is so widespread. There isn’t a target group,” Foehrkolb said. “Parents shouldn’t fall into a false sense of my child wouldn’t do that — it is cheap and completely legal.”
Mike Gimbel, director for the Bureau of Substance Abuse in Baltimore County, said inhalant abuse has always been a “younger kid’s” drug because it is cheaper. A statewide 1994 Adolescent School Survey showed the highest numbers of children who have tried inhalants is in the 10th grade, 15- to 16-year-olds.
“These are alarming numbers. They are not as high as marijuana and cigarettes, but far more deadly,” Gimbel said.
Gimbel will testify in favor of Collins’ bill when it is heard Feb. 26 in Annapolis by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. His office, with Foehrkolb’s participation, is starting a program called, “For Pete’s Sake Don’t Do Inhalants.”
Baltimore County SADD, formerly Students Against Driving Drunk, has changed its name to Students Against Destructive Decisions, to include other situations that students face such as inhalant abuse. Presidents of the county chapters will be the first to hear Pete’s mother tell his story for the new program on Feb. 18 at Towson Presbyterian Church.
“The power of SADD is that it is totally student driven,” Gimbel said. “Through my bureau we coordinate SADD and give them information. The young people themselves take it directly back to their peers.”
Foehrkolb said the posters being made for this program should have an influence on the students.
“We are going to superimpose Pete’s picture over his death certificate,” she said. “We hope this has a deep affect on those students who see it.”
Foehrkolb said she hopes Collins’ bill will pass and have an affect on those who abuse inhalants. But she acknowledges that it is probably just a Band-aid, given that minors often find ways to purchase things that legally they may not. Pete, she observed, smoked cigarettes. Gimbel agreed. But he added, “If it stops one kid from inhaling butane, it was worth it.” -30-