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This article originally appeared in the April 7, 2011, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

When you hear the term “bath salts,” you probably think of a pouch of sweet-smelling, pastel-colored crystals that you pour into the bath to help you relax at the end of a long day. But for many teenagers, bath salts refer to a new form of hallucinogenic substances being sold to kids—legally.

These bath salts look like powders and are sold under names like “Ivory Wave,” “Cloud Nine” or “Bliss.” One warning sign to parents is price: A tiny packet of these substances can cost up to $39.

These substances are legally sold and marketed as bath salts. However, this is a wink-and-nudge marketing strategy designed to entice users into a false feeling of safety. After all, kids could argue, doesn’t the fact that the bath salts are legal mean they’re safe?

On the contrary, says Dr. Anthony Scalzo, medical director of the Missouri Poison Center and an emergency room physician at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.

“We have seen a number of people coming into emergency departments and calling poison centers across the country because they’re having a bad reaction to these bath salts which they inhale,” Scalzo said. “What is scary about these drugs is we can’t predict how they’ll react in any one person’s body.”

There are some common symptoms that worry the medical community across the country, says Scalzo, who is also a toxicology professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

“With these patients, we’re seeing a rapid heartbeat that many are describing as a pounding, like their heart is coming right out of their chest,” Scalzo said. “We’re also seeing significantly elevated blood pressure, panic attacks, hallucinations and paranoia. We’ve seen users take some pretty drastic actions under the influence of these bath salts.”

The use of bath salts is significantly rising. The Missouri Poison Center had only 18 exposures in 2010; that number has jumped to more than 80 exposures already this year. Missouri isn’t the only state experiencing this massive increase. A number of states are reporting widespread use of these synthetic drugs.

Lawmakers are working hard to outlaw these substances, like they did with the synthetic marijuana K2 last year. However, as they work to ban these drugs, their manufacturers are working just as hard to tweak one element of the chemical compound and stay just a step ahead of law enforcement.

With legal drugs like this for sale in gas stations and retail stores, what can concerned parents do to protect their children?

For starters, parents should educate themselves about the substances that are out there. As drug manufacturers become savvier at reaching teens, parents must become equally savvy to protect their children. Kids have been lectured about staying away from illegal drugs for decades, but parents should modify their standard “drug talk” to keep up with the times.

“Parents know how to talk to their kids about standard recreational drugs and to avoid drug dealers and watch for dangers, but it’s getting more sophisticated,” Scalzo said. “Parents need to double up efforts and reinforce to kids the dangers of trying some of these unknown compounds.”

How can parents know if their teens may already be using bath salts?

Watch for agitation and paranoia, Dr. Scalzo said. Kids who suddenly start behaving in a paranoid way, or out of character for their personality, may be using these substances.

Parents can also watch for kids who are going through a large amount of money without a good explanation.

“If your kid is going through an inordinate amount of cash a week and can’t account for it, that’s a big clue right there,” Scalzo said.

Parents who are worried that a child has been exposed to bath salts can contact the poison center by calling 800-222-1222. This national number routes calls to local poison centers.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at


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