What's the Buzz?

For years, the uninitiated have roamed the aisles of adult boutiques, wondering what possible uses anyone could find for the bevy of battery-operated rubber-and-latex pumps, prods and plungers dangling from the walls.

In recent months, however, sex-shop customers have been baffled by an even stranger mystery.

Namely, what's so erotic about a $13 vial of VCR-head cleaner? And why bother making a special trip to a porn shop when name-brand cleaning kits are available at mainstream stores for nearly half the price?

Asked about a display of the oddly named cleaners (Purple, Mr. Wonderful), a clerk at Castle Boutique recently offered an oblique clue.

"Some people like to, you know, clean their heads," she answered, coyly suggesting the product's real purpose by tracing an index finger along the side of her nose and making a snorting noise.

In reality, the new nitrite-based "head cleaners"--which users sniff for a momentary "head rush"--are simply the latest in a long string of legal dodges around laws designed to prohibit abuse of the hazardous inhalant.

"It's just a new spin on an old drug," says Dr. Donald Kunkle, medical director of Samaritan Regional Poison Control Center. "[Nitrites] probably aren't the worst drugs in the world [but] they all have adverse effects."

Chemically related to the prescription medication amyl nitrite (or "poppers," glass ampules whose fumes are sniffed by heart patients during angina attacks), over-the-counter nitrite inhalants first found favor in gay discos of the early Seventies. Marketed as "room odorizers" under labels like Rush, Locker Room, Ram, and Hard-On, the inhalants produce lightheadedness and increased tactile sensations for several minutes. According to enthusiasts--primarily gay men--the products also enhance sexual experience and prolong orgasm. Often described as smelling like dirty gym socks, the inhalants sell for about $13 a bottle and can be found in adult boutiques and head shops, as well as some bars and bath houses.

While it appears that inhaled nitrites haven't been directly linked to any fatalities, a misguided thrill seeker did die outside a Washington, D.C., disco in 1979 after he apparently drank the inhalant.

Still, authorities warn that the substances are far from harmless, even if only inhaled. Because nitrites dilate blood vessels, a user's blood pressure plummets drastically immediately after sniffing the noxious vapors. Unpleasant side effects can include dizziness, heart palpitations, unconsciousness, blurred vision, nausea and severe headaches. And while the jury's still out, some research suggests that nitrites may play a role in AIDS-related health problems.

"These things do affect the body's ability to carry oxygen," reports Jude McNally, director of Arizona Poison Control Center. "If somebody has any kind of preexisting condition, this could screw them up even worse."

Because of manufacturers' cagey marketing stratagems, however, officials say there's little they can do to stop the sale or use of the liquid.

Because the inhalants carry no health claims, the products don't fall under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. And unlike glue- and paint-sniffing (a felony offense, unless the judge says otherwise), the sale or use of nitrite inhalants is not illegal under current Arizona law.

After a rash of complaints from parents concerned over their children's use of inhalants like Rush, the Consumer Product Safety Commission successfully outlawed the sale of butyl and isobutyl products (neither of which has any recognized medical use) in 1988. But by slightly reformulating the products, manufacturers easily sidestepped the ban.

"These nitrite inhalants are really kind of a black market," reports Joel Swisher, director of product affairs for CPSC in San Francisco. "We've got to catch up with the product, get samples and test them, then find the firms that are distributing and manufacturing them. It's not nearly as cut-and-dried as, say, dealing with a company that's manufactured a bicycle improperly."

And since nitrites aren't an ingredient in any reputable head cleaner, woe to the dim libertine who actually tries to use the stuff to clean his VCR heads.

Echoing the comments of others in the video-maintenance field, Roger Curtis of VCR Doctor says, "This is sure nothing I'm familiar with. But I suspect if anyone tries to get this stuff inside their machine with a Q-Tip, most likely all they're going to do is end up ruining the