Bath Salts: What are they and why are they so dangerous?

In Maine news this week there was a sad and disturbing story about a teenager arrested on charges of burglary, theft, criminal mischief and criminal trespass. According to an article in the Bangor Daily News, he was found naked in one of two homes he allegedly broke into. This is not a blog post about the teenager, but about the hallucinogenic drugs police believe he MAY have been on that night — bath salts. I confess I don’t know anything about bath salts except that they are a synthetic so-called designer drug and they are dangerous. I decided to learn more and share it with you.

What are bath salts?

First of all, bath salts are not epsom salts. Although they may look similar, you don’t sprinkle them into your bath water to soothe various aches and pains. The bath salts that people snort, swallow, inject or smoke to get high are made of a combination of synthetic chemicals related to cathinone, an amphetamine-like stimulant found naturally in the Khat plant. These bath salts cause serious side effects that can last up to 12 days. Some users may experience a racing heart, confusion and memory loss and others will hallucinate, have seizures, be extremely paranoid and exhibit bizarre behavior. 

Possible side effects

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Paranoia
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Seizures
  • Panic attacks
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

Bath salts in Maine

Bath salts surfaced as club drugs in Europe in the early to mid 2000s and arrived in the United States in 2010, where they quickly became a huge issue. Maine was no exception.

In 2011, The Lunder-Dineen Health Education Alliance of Maine, which offers online health education programs, conducted extensive research throughout the state on substance abuse issues. “We went to hospitals and organizations and professional societies,” explains Denise O’Connell, the Senior Program Manager. “Regardless of where they worked, across the continuum, whether they were a nurse or a doctor or a social worker, everyone said, ‘We need substance abuse education’ and bath salts jumped out because at the time it was a huge problem in Maine.”

With the help of medical, law enforcement and substance abuse experts, Lunder-Dineen developed evidence-based education and other resources, including this infographic.

Bath salts infographic

Bath Salts Laws

Several laws have been passed since bath salts became such a problem in the United States:

  • In 2011, the State of Maine enacted a law making possession and trafficking of bath salts illegal.
  • In 2012, Maine banned additional drugs that could be used to make bath salts.
  • In 2012, federal legislation to, among other things, ban synthetic compounds found in bath salts was signed into law.

The laws may have made it harder for some people to use bath salts, but they’re certainly still easy to find and buy. I did a quick Internet search and found several online sites that sell bath salts as research chemicals. They’re also sold as plant food, insect repellants and toy, jewelry or glass cleaners with names like Ivory Wave, Vanilla Sky and White Rush.

Products are usually labeled “Not for human consumption.” One site I visited had this disclaimer: “If sold or promoted for human consumption, some research chemicals sold on this site would fall under the USA federal analogue act, a subsection of the controlled substance act and instantly be illegal, However we must make it crystal clear that all research chemical collector’s items sold on this site are specifically not intended for human consumption and must never ever be consumed.”

In a Lunder-Dineen Webinar for health care providers, Ron Gastia, retired Bangor Police chief, said one of challenges is that as soon as an illicit drug is identified and banned, somewhere in the world a drug manufacturer is making subtle changes.  “We will not eliminate the use of bath salts,” he says. “There will be new bath salt drugs in the future. [They] will affect our youth and people will die from them. Education, treatment and enforcement will help to minimize the increase of bath salt use.”

More information

If you want more information, you can go to the Lunder-Dineen website and download a .pdf of its bath salts pocket guide or order hard copies. You can also learn about a new substance abuse initiative called Time to Ask: Education that transforms conversations about alcohol use.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.