NEWS

Lock up your gas: northern community fights sniffing with fuel safes

05/29/2013 12:53 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT
KUGLUKTUK, Nunavut - A young boy's death has inspired a remote Arctic community to adopt a unique response to the problem of gas-sniffing.

People in Kugluktuk along the central Arctic coast are locking up gas containers in tough wooden boxes to keep them away from young people bent on inhaling fumes to get high.

"It started when we had a young chap in town here, 12 to 14 years old, who died last summer because of inhalant use," said hamlet Coun. Sven Kerkovius.

"The fact that one kid died made us realize that we had to do something. We didn't want to sit around and wait for another one to happen."

A community meeting last fall led to posters plastered everywhere in Kugluktuk that warned of the dangers of solvent sniffing. Local radio shows discussed the dangers and health and law enforcement officials spoke to youth meetings. Sports and arts programs were created to give young people better recreational choices.

Kugluktuk realized it had to do something about the accessibility of solvents, too.

Northerners depend on snow machines and quads to get around. Gasoline to keep them running is normally stored in jerry cans left outside in yards, where sniffers could easily get at them.

"They really didn't have a place to store their gas jugs in a safe manner," Kerkovius said.

Why not provide one? somebody asked.

With $60,000 from the territorial government and the Anglican Church, carpenters built 121 tough, vented, bright-yellow wooden boxes that can be locked up tightly and used to store jerry cans and propane canisters.

"They are very secure, the next best thing to lockable metal boxes," said Kerkovius.

The boxes were given to anyone who wanted one and are highly visible all over town.

It's too soon to judge the impact of the safe boxes, but Nunavut officials say they're closely watching how it works and have already had inquiries from other communities.

"They did a really great job," said Janelle Budgell, director of community wellness for the territorial government. "It was a community-based, community-led program."

Budgell emphasizes that Kugluktuk's approach depends as much on education and community involvement as it does on locking up solvents. But the boxes are a big part of it and Kugluktuk is the first hamlet to come up with what seems, in retrospect, to be an obvious move.

"Sometimes, it takes a tragic event to think about what needs to be done."

The boy's death made people realize that gas needs to be handled carefully.

"We're so used to using gasoline up here we really don't take into account how dangerous it is," said Kerkovius.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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