FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The half-gram bottle of bath salts promises an "invigorating" and "energizing" experience.
But to local and federal authorities, it's another dangerous product misused as fake cocaine that's sending youths to emergency rooms and mental hospitals in Florida and across the country.
As federal officials prepare to ban synthetic marijuana, specialty shops and convenience stores across Florida have started stocking up on bottles of bath salts. Louisiana and Florida authorities have linked these bath salts to at least two suicides in Louisiana, 21 calls to Florida poison control centers and dozens of hospital visits in Central and South Florida in the past year.
"We're seeing teenagers experiment with this," said Dr. Nabil El Sanadi, chief of emergency medicine for Broward Health. "They will do stuff that they wouldn't normally do, like dive from a third-story window into a pool. It's very, very dangerous."
These products being sold as bath salts are not those commonly to be used in baths, authorities say. Some manufacturers are making designer drugs being sold as bath salts, said Wendy Stephan, health educator with the Florida Poison Information Center in Miami.
Users usually snort the powder and experience effects similar to cocaine and crystal meth, El Sanadi said. But the euphoria often leads to paranoia, chest pains and irregular heartbeats.
Those cases have popped up at Broward General Medical Center and other Broward Health hospitals, El Sanadi said.
"They come in confused, disoriented, with high blood pressure," said El Sanadi, who first noticed the trend in spring 2010. "I guarantee you most parents don't even suspect their kids might be doing it."
A half-gram bottle sells for $25-$30.
The bath salts are found in many of the shops and gas stations that once sold legal weed, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has reported an alarming increase in abuse of the bath salts.
The Department of Justice says "numerous brands are marketed in all 50 U.S. states and via Internet websites. Common brand names include Blue Silk, Charge Plus, Ivory Snow, Ivory Wave ... and White Lightening."
In December, the DEA listed a chemical, methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), found in some of the bath salts as a drug of concern. MPDV stimulates the central nervous system and the federal agency is studying the drug. The chemical reportedly has caused intense panic attacks, psychosis and addiction, according to the DEA, which has no current plans to ban it.
The psychotic effects of some of these products are what make them so dangerous, said Dr. Cynthia Lewis-Younger, director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa.
"It makes people lose touch with reality," she said. "They're ending up in psychiatric institutions."
These reactions may be linked to MPDV, the chemical which has been found in many of the salts, federal officials said. The chemical is not approved for medical use in the United States, and the United Kingdom banned it in April after linking it to several deaths.
A DEA ban is in the works for synthetic marijuana chemicals found in incense blends, which made headlines in 2010 as thousands of smokers of brands such as K2 and Spice were hospitalized across the country. Federal officials announced plans in November to outlaw the drug, and local authorities say retailers may be looking at fake cocaine as a new way to make money.
"This is all about money," Lantana Police Officer Nelson Berrios said. "The makers know what it is and they're trying to skirt the law by selling it as something else." Some of the products are labeled not for human consumption.
In Palm Beach County, a handful of stores have started selling the products, Berrios said, but abuse does not seem widespread.
Owners and employees of several stores that sell the bath salts declined to comment or wouldn't give their names.
Across the country, poison control centers got more than 232 calls about bath salts abuse in 2010, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.
Skyrocketing overdoses of some products labeled bath salts in Louisiana led Gov. Bobby Jindal to enact an emergency ban of MPDV and other chemicals found in some products on Jan. 6. More than half of the country's cases have been reported there, and law enforcement has connected at least two suicides to the bath salts.
Investigators are uncertain where the powder is made, but some think it comes from Asia and is packaged in the United States.
Kentucky already has filed legislation to ban the substance; the North Dakota's Pharmacy Board has added several of those same chemicals to its banned-substance list.
Kristin Weiser, 43, said she paid $25 for a half-gram bottle of a bath salt product at a Fort Lauderdale gas station in November. She was looking for an energy boost, she said, and it kept her awake for days. The effect was so strong that it scared her and she has left the rest of the bottle untouched.
"It's very dangerous. It needs to go off the market," she said. "I haven't touched it. I just won't."
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