If you see a group of boys huddled behind a building and blowing smoke, chances are they are puffing cigarettes away from the prying eyes of their parents. Not necessarily, though. For all you know, they could be smoking crushed ants to get a high.
Shocking as it may appear, the bizarre and dangerous fad has gripped UAE teens and kids, some as young as 10.
Energy drinks and medhwak (smoking pipe) in hand, they scour the alleys and sandy parking lots in certain parts of Dubai and Sharjah, looking for the native samsun (Pachycondyla sennaarensis) black ant. Once caught, the insects are crushed, rolled into tobacco leaves or sprinkled over cigarettes and smoked.
Inhaling the fumes of the ant causes audio-visual hallucinations similar to marijuana, but the consequences could be far more harmful.
“Samsun ants contain highly concentrated formic acid which is used by the insect to ward off predators and kill prey. When heated the formic acid produces toxic gases. They are not addictive but inhaling them can cause pulmonary fibrosis and renal failure besides other conditions including irreversible nervous system damage,” warned a Dubai-based pulmonologist.
Dr Reza Khan, wildlife specialist at Dubai Municipality, said a bite by the ant can be fatal for people with allergies if they are not rushed to hospital on time.
Dr Wedad Al Maidoor, Head of the National Tobacco Control Committee, Ministry of Health, said she is aware of the practice of teens smoking ants, but is not sure how widespread it is as there has been no study on the subject.
“We have heard about it. For some teens, the acid in the poison glands of ants smells like vinegar and they inhale its pungent fumes to get a kick. It’s very dangerous as it can cause lung and other diseases,” said Dr Al Maidoor.
It is believed the fad originated in labour camps where some subcontinent workers smoke ant-filled beedis (hand-rolled cigarettes made of tendu leaves) as a cheap alternative to illegal drugs.
But now the trend is spreading.
“Until last year there would be just two of three boys, but now there are several groups,” said a resident of Sharjah’s Al Majaz area as he walked us down a street that transforms into an agora of glue-sniffers and ant-smokers most evenings.
Photography is risky. As we approached a group of teens huffing on a glue pot at a cordoned-off under-construction site, a skinny, frizzy-haired Arab boy, wearing a Manchester City jersey and no older than 12 years shouted: “What you want? Go away or we beat you.”
Health experts reckon glue-sniffing is a bigger killer of teens than hard drugs. But the warning seemed to be lost on the youngsters as several of them could be spotted sniffing adhesives used for binding leather, wood or glass to get a feeling of euphoria.
Used and semi-used boxes of adhesives and paint-thinners of various brands lie scattered everywhere -- on the sidewalks, in the alleys, parking lots and under-construction buildings.
“It’s cheap, readily available and lasts for days,” said a bespectacled teenage glue-addict, who aspires to become a pilot.
Smoking ants can cause lung diseases and kidney failure while sniffing solvents like glue and paint thinners can result in Permanent damage to the brain, heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. in some cases, it can also cause sudden death.
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