After years of successful efforts to curb petrol sniffing, a prominent youth worker says young people in a Central Australian community have started abusing the very fuel that was supposed to keep them safe.

Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS) co-manager Tristan Ray said 33 young people from Papunya, 250 kilometres west of Alice Springs, had been referred to Territory Families for sniffing low aromatic fuel.

Mr Ray said the identified young people were 10 to 13 years old.

CAYLUS successfully campaigned for the introduction of low aromatic fuel – Opal – in Central Australia to stop sniffing in 2005, but Mr Ray said the petrol was now being abused.

He believed the young people were using the substance to become hypoxic, where the gas replaced the oxygen in their bodies.

The community’s petrol bowser was being locked overnight in response.

“Some accounts” from witnesses said the young people were not “obviously intoxicated” but were becoming unconscious, according to Mr Ray.

“Any form of sniffing is really dangerous,” he said.

MacDonnell Regional Council chief executive Jeff MacLeod referred to reports of sniffing in the community following a crime wave in the community this week.

Security at bowsers in Papunya has been increased in response to the reports.(ABC News: Claire Campbell)

‘Raw nerve’

According to a 2009 Senate report, 600 people in the Central Desert were sniffing regularly in 2006, leaving a large cohort of people with long-term brain damage.

At the time, CAYLUS said 100 people in Papunya were regularly abusing the substance.

By 2008, the same report found the number of regular users in the region was reduced by more than 70 per cent following the introduction of Opal fuel, which is more expensive to produce but does not give users a high.

Mr Ray said Opal had made a difference, but he could see that the “window of opportunity” to address the underlying causes of petrol sniffing might be closing.

“This is very upsetting behaviour for these families in Papunya, who’ve seen total destruction from sniffing in the past,” he said.

“It’s such a raw nerve for these families to see their children behaving this way.”

Mr Ray said a number of the young people involved in sniffing currently were thought to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but had not been able to get diagnosed.

“They’ve got a lot going on,” he said.

Reflecting on the success of Opal fuel to this point, Mr Ray, who was involved in its introduction in 2005, said his service and others had “pushed hard” to prevent substance abuse in young people through youth programs and community services.

“But we’re falling flat there,” he said.

Tristan Ray says youth services are struggling because of funding cuts.(Supplied: Tristan Ray)

Services stretched

Mr Ray said the Volatile Substance Misuse Prevention Act meant young people involved in sniffing could be forced by a magistrate to attend rehabilitation.

But because of COVID-related workforce issues there were not enough services to meet demand.

He said  some young people had begun moving through the system despite the shortage of places.

“It’s not quick,” Mr Ray said.

He said CAYLUS was also working with the young people’s families, MacDonnell Regional Council’s youth program and Territory Families to find other solutions.

“We’re asking, ‘Can they go to boarding school?’ Can they go and stay with other family somewhere else? Can they go and spend some time on an outstation?'” he said.

In a statement, Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) had been meeting weekly with stakeholders in the community to address the uptick in substance abuse.

He said $116,000 in additional federal funding had flowed to Papunya, targeted at at-risk youth.