The territory’s second inquest into petrol sniffing deaths was sparked after a boy aged 14 died north of Alice Springs and two men aged 21 and 37 died in Mutitjulu.
Territory Coroner Greg Cavanagh travelled to Mutitjulu yesterday but proceedings were brought to an early close after being confronted by the distressing sight of a young man sniffing petrol from a can.
The Coroner had been listening to a woman giving evidence about the scale of the petrol sniffing problem in the community of 400 when her son approached the gathering.
The woman begged for help to save her son before the hearing was ordered closed.
“It’s something that happens every day, they walk through the community all the time with cans to their faces,” local council member Graeme Calma said afterwards of the growing substance abuse problem.
“I’ve seen a pregnant woman sitting next to her mother with a petrol tine tied around her face. I’ve also seen mothers pushing prams with petrol tins tied around their face,” Greg Andrews, the project manager for Mutitjulu Working Together, told the Australian Associated Press (AAP) news service.
Mr Andrews said that between 20 and 40 people in Mutitjulu alone who were regular sniffers, and that half of them had suffered permanent brain damage.
“There’s about 600 young people sniffing within this region, about 120 of them will be dead or in wheelchairs in the next few years if nothing is done,” Mr Andrews added.
According to the AAP, Mutitjulu’s Senior Aboriginal health worker Mary Turner said girls were starting to be caught up in the deadly habit and some girls were prostituting themselves in return for petrol.
“Everyone is aware of it and people know who these people are that are doing it, it’s just a matter of the police catching them,” Ms Turner said.
Police said the sex-for-petrol claims had been investigated but failed to turn up enough evidence to prosecute offenders.
Ms Turner, who was on duty on the occasions of the two petrol sniffing deaths in Mutitjulu last year, said another concern was the risk of self-harm the problem posed.
“People threatening to commit suicide, we get those once a week,” Ms Turner told ABC radio.
As the inquest returned to Alice Springs today, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown called for urgent action to address what he called a “horror show” unfolding across central Australia.
Senator Brown has demanded the federal government subsidise the widespread delivery of a newly developed fuel called Opal which contains low levels of the substance that gives petrol sniffers their ‘high’.
“For less than half of one percent of (the cost of diesel subsidies afforded to truck-drivers, loggers and miners) this new petrol could be brought into central Australian lands, so that there wasn’t bootlegging,” the Senator said.
The inquest continues.