By Jenny Hills
(Knight-Rider) Mt. Pleasant, S.C. — Marianne Watson is your typical Wando High School student. She likes shopping at Towne Center. She enjoys hanging out with her friends at Dancin’ Nancies on teen night. She is obsessed with surfing songwriter Jack Johnson. Her father says she is even fond of introducing herself as Marianne Johnson, much to her parents’ chagrin. But unbeknownst to her family, Marianne has a drug problem.
Her friends knew that Marianne abused drugs, but troubled teens very rarely know the trouble they are in until it is too late. And in the case of Marianne Watson, the trap she fell into was well-hidden. Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, LSD, heroin – Marianne knew to avoid these. As a member of the local D.A.R.E. teen street team, she was well-versed in the dangers of substance abuse.
But what happens when the drugs aren’t illegal? What happens when those drugs are free? Even worse, what happens when those drugs are available in your own home?
For Marianne, the drug pusher was two doors down the hall from her bedroom. For Marianne, getting high was as easy as cleaning out the lint trap. For Marianne, smoking dryer lint was a temptation she just couldn’t resist. And now she’s in a coma.
She’s not alone. An estimated seven teenagers in the Charleston area have recently been admitted to local hospitals after smoking dryer lint, leaving experts wondering if they are witnessing the birth of a dangerous new drug epidemic, one that could put the 1980s crack epidemic to shame. While most substance abuse epidemics disproportionately impact inner cities, this new high knows no geographic or socioeconomic boundaries. In fact, authorities believe that middle-class children may be affected by this new epidemic more than any other before. After all, what suburban household doesn’t have a washer and dryer?
The problem is quickly spreading across the state. And it’s easy to see why.
Dr. Jay Hamilton of the Texas Institute of Technology says, “Dryer lint smoking is an inexpensive and immediately accessible way to get high. Its effects last for hours.”
Hamilton says that concerned parents, law enforcement, and educators can easily determine which youths are abusing dryer lint. “While we have been unable to study the long-term effects of dryer lint smoking, anecdotal evidence and preliminary observations indicate that frequent smokers suffer from a discoloration of the sclera,” Hamilton says. “Where normally you would see white, in the user you would notice a faint blue.”
This is one warning sign the parents of Marianne Watson wish they had known. Because they didn’t, their daughter’s problems went unnoticed. “For a while, we thought the dryer was broken because the lint trap was always clean,” says Thomas Watson. “I can’t tell you how many times I opened up the back of that thing. I was too worried about a fire being started by lint buildup to realize my own daughter was in danger.”
With tears in her eyes, Jolene Watson says, “Marianne always smelled so clean, but she’d been washing her clothes on her own since she was in middle school, so I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought she was using a different brand of fabric softener. We should have known that something didn’t smell right.”
Breaking into sobs, Jolene adds, “My daughter’s clothes were clean, but she wasn’t.”
Like the Watsons, many Charleston-area parents are now well aware of the threat of dryer lint smoking, especially after a high school party this summer sent five teens to the hospital.
Some teens appear to have gotten the message that dryer lint smoking is dangerous. “They say it makes you feel all bouncy with energy. It makes you want to snuggle,” says Riley Maguire, a Wando High School student who sat beside Marianne in biology class. “I knew it was against the law, so I didn’t touch the stuff.”
According to Special Law Enforcement Division (SLED) representative Neal Shealy, lint smoking itself is not currently against the law, although it has led to a rash of petty crimes, most notably at all-night laundromats. “On average, we receive six or seven reports a day about missing lint traps,” says Shealy. “That doesn’t account for the ones that aren’t reported. It might not seem like a lot, but it adds up.”
And add up it did for Emma Shilstone, former owner of Kings Cleaners on Highway 17 North, located between two upscale residential neighborhoods, Wood Lakes and Lake Woods. She was forced to close her laundromat because it had become popular hangout for what Shilstone and others are calling lint heads, or dryer lint users.
Shilstone says, “My religion says I should love my neighbor, but it’s so hard when it comes to those lint heads. I know they’re weak. I know they’re addicted, but they’re worse than terrorists, destroying peoples’ lives.”
She adds, “If the government doesn’t do something about this, for all the hardworking folks in the cleaning business it’ll be worse than 9/11.”
Shilstone could be right. There appears to be no shortage of laundromats in South Carolina or in any other city in the United States. They are all targets. But so far, very few are prepared for the coming days. Most don’t even know that trouble is just a wash away.