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POPPERS:
an ugly side of gay business


by Arthur Evans [1]


    Has the rise of a powerful gay business network during the last few years been a boon to the rest of the Gay community? Gay business groups like the Golden Gate Business Association would have us believe so. And to an extent, they're right — especially for small-time operators like plumbers, carpenters, auto mechanics, shoe-repair people, etc. But Gay big business is another matter altogether. Indeed, as we'll soon see, whenever Gay big business has impacted on our lives, the results have been devastating.
    First, consider what may be the largest single money maker in the Gay world — the popper industry. Within the last fifteen years the use of poppers has exploded in the Gay male world, with a spillover lately among some Lesbians. Many Gay businesses, and not just bath houses, now routinely sell poppers, and their use has become as ubiquitous in bars, baths, and bookstores  as their odor. A huge number of Gay men never have sex anymore without poppers. Many are unable even to masturbate without them.
    The money rolls in. A study in 1978 estimated that the popper industry was grossing $50 million a year. Today that figure is probably much higher.
    Have the popper makers enriched our lives? Not at all, according to Hank Wilson, the long-time S.F. activist best known for his previous good works in the Gay Teachers Coalition. Hank fears that heavy, long-term use of poppers as an inhalant — and they're now being sold free of any drug testing or control whatsoever — may prove to be a threat to the health of the Gay community. His new organization, The Committee to Monitor the Cumulative Effects of Poppers, presented me with a stack, several inches thick, of medical research papers and news stories on the subject. When I read them, my hair stood on end.
    Chemically, poppers consist largely of amyl and butyl nitrites. In 1968 the Federal Drug Administration prohibited the sale of amyl nitrite except by prescription. Since then, the active ingredient in legally sold poppers (the big-name brands) has been butyl nitrite. The smaller, street-pushed varieties often continue to contain amyl nitrite. All the nitrites, however, are closely related and show similar chemical properties.
    Nitrites have been shown to have harmful effects. In 1977 The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that in large amounts they can cause “brown blood” (methemoglobinemia), a form of anemia where the blood turns brown in color and where the oxygen supply to vital organs is reduced. In 1981 The Medical Journal of Australia reported that long-term, intense nitrite-sniffing can also cause a second form of anemia, Heinz body hemolytic anemia. In January 1981, Drug Intelligence and Chemical Pharmacy reported the case of a man whose sniffing of Locker Room poppers caused severe respiratory problems (coughing, fever, spitting up blood, difficulty in breathing).
    Since nitrites greatly increase the heart beat while lowering blood pressure, they are dangerous for people with certain types of heart disorders (such as tachycardia), especially when such people exert themselves physically. Clinical Toxicology reported in 1980: “The use of volatile nitrites to enhance sexual performance and pleasure can result in syncope (fainting) and death by cardio-vascular collapse.”
    But the greatest medical concern is the suspicion that poppers cause cancer. It has been known for some time that when nitrites combine with amines (the latter occur naturally in the human body), the result is a class of substances known as nitrosamines. This chemical reaction is ominous because some nitrosamines have been shown to be potent causes of cancer in animals. It is precisely because nitrites form cancer-causing nitrosamines in animals that Ralph Nader has been fighting to ban even tiny amounts of nitrites as a food preservative.
    But what about the effects of inhaling huge amounts of nitrites right into the lungs? Believe it or not, no study has ever been done to see whether long-term inhalation of nitrites creates cancer-causing nitrosamines in humans — even though millions of bottles of poppers are sniffed every year.
    But there's more. In 1980 it was reported by the Italian journal Bolletino Società Italiana Biologia Sperimentale that nitrites cause mutations in genes. So what, you may say, you never intended to have kids anyway. Maybe so, but we also know that chemicals which mutate genes also often cause cancer. And in any case, the journal Science in 1978 referred to an MIT study “that furnished, for the first time, solid evidence that nitrites are themselves carcinogens.”
    All this talk about cancer might seem academic if it weren't for a startling report that came out of the Center for Disease control in Atlanta on August 28, 1981. At that time the Center announced that an extremely rare form of cancer, Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS), and an extremely rare form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), were showing up at an epidemic rate among Gay males. Of the cases reported since January of 1976, 94% of the men whose sexual preference was known were Gay. 40% of those cases proved to be fatal. Moreover, the number of cases seems to be increasing. 91% of the cases have occurred since January 1980, and the majority were from New York and California. Even more astonishing is the fact that some Gay men have come down with both these rare diseases.
    It there something unique about the present Gay male lifestyle that could be causing KS and PCP? An obvious suspect is poppers — since (1) they have come to dominate Gay male sex life (straights use them far less), and (2) we have good medical grounds for suspecting them of being carcinogens. In addition, it usually takes cancer several years to show up after exposure to a carcinogen. The cases that are now surfacing fit in with the history of the popper fad.
    In the face of this potential health threat, the popper industry has shown incredible arrogance. In 1977, W. Jay Freezer, [2] the Chair of the company that makes Rush, told the Wall Street Journal that poppers were safe enough to be sold in supermarkets: “If Safeway customers want the product, I don't see why it couldn't be sold there.” In 1978 Freezer's parent company, Pharmex Ltd., of San Francisco, hired their own experts (at a cost of $200,000), to counter the bad PR nitrites had been getting from independent medical research.
    Their report is not a credit to the scientific spirit. By a studied ambiguity (to put it politely), the authors state in their introduction that the issue is one of “the use of butyl nitrite in consumer products used for odorizing purposes” — thus keeping up the pretense that poppers are mostly used as an incense or odorizer, and not as an inhalant. Hence the study mostly labors to show that poppers make a safe room odorizer (which is not the real issue at all). Their research concludes: “It is difficult to envision any product with a better record of public safety.”
    The researchers' duplicity on the real purpose of poppers comes from Freezer himself. Over the years there had been several attempts, both locally and federally, to ban poppers as a health menace. Freezer was able to fend off these efforts by an incredible lie — claiming that poppers were not sold as an inhalant or aphrodisiac, but as a room odorizer. (I can just see it now — you get home after a hard day's work, greet your lover, and say, “Gee, it's a little musty in here; why don't you open some poppers.”)
    In July of 1979 Freezer's company reached a court settlement with the California Department of Health, whereby he would continue to push poppers free of any regulation, testing, or control if Rush were not advertized as a drug or sold to minors. The hypocrisy of this settlement is mind-boggling. If poppers are really just odorizers, why is it necessary to ban their sale to minors? Is Airwick banned to minors? Even though the label warns against inhalation, everybody knows that poppers are really used for. Why, after all, does Freezer call his product Rush?
    In fact, both the popper makes and the California Department of Health have committed a criminal fraud. By hiding behind the lie that poppers are being used as a room odorizer or incense, they have completely circumvented the normal safety net of testing which every drug in this country must be subject to in order to be sold. As a result, in a few short years the popper makes have made millions.
    But what about the cases of Gay cancer and Gay pneumonia? Are they just the first ripple of something more ominous? Will a great wave of cancerous death pass over the Gay men in this country during the next twenty years? No one knows — because the long-term effects of heavy popper inhalation have never been tested. In the meantime, the major popper companies continue to rake in the money and remain members in good standing of the Golden Gate Business Association.  

This concludes Part I of a two-part series on the influence of big Gay business on the quality of Gay life. Part II in December Coming Up! will deal with the Gay bar owners and alcoholism.

Arthur Evans has been a Gay activist since 1969 and recently spear-headed the successful drive to improve conditions at the Club Baths at 8th and Howard Streets. [3]

The Committee to Monitor the Cumulative Effects of Poppers is located at 55 Mason Street, SF 94102. For information on their work or to report instances of popper-related illness or bummer experiences call Hank Wilson at 441-4188. [4]



Notes by John Lauritsen, October 2011
1. The article above was published in the November 1981 issue of Coming Up!, which later became the San Francisco Bay Times. It proved to be tragically prophetic.  Evans clearly saw the link between the gay male lifestyle and the new illnesses, and especially between poppers and KS.  All this was long before "AIDS" had acquired its name, or the "AIDS virus" had
been either "discovered" or named. The reasoning of Arthur Evans is just as valid now as it was 30 years ago.

2. W. Jay Freezer died of complications due to “AIDS” on 27 March 1985. Not the first poppers manufacturer to die from “AIDS”, Freezer was preceded by the New Yorker known as “Poppers Bill”. The world's largest popper manufacturer, Joseph F. Miller, committed suicide on 25 August 2010.

3. Arthur Evans died from a heart condition on 11 September 2011.


4. The address and telephone number are no longer valid. Hank Wilson died of lung cancer on 9 November 2008.

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