More than a third of children and some as young as 13 have smoked the native samsum ant as a substitute for illegal substances such as marijuana, a senior UAE health official has warned. Smoking the red ant gives a similar sensation to smoking marijuana and sniffing glue because of the high concentration of formic acid found in the ants. It is not illegal to smoke the ants, and a small packet is said to sell for Dh400 in Dubai.
"People smoke the ants because they are cheaper and safer - in the eyes of the law - than smoking narcotics," said a senior police spokesman. "It is also widely available, if not easily purchased." Formic acid, from the Latin word for ant, formica, is a combustible liquid that produces poisonous gases when heated up. Health professionals say the long-term effects of smoking the red ants could vary from lung fibrosis to kidney failure and damage to the central nervous system.
The Ministry of Health has not yet conducted research on the effects of smoking the ants. "We are well aware this practice exists. More than a third of teenagers have tried it and some as young as 13," said Dr Wedad Maidoor, the head of the ministry's tobacco control team. "However, our research only identifies the prevalence and not the side-effects of the practice because we have only recently become aware of it."
She believes the youth are smoking the samsum ant because it is a legal alternative to marijuana. "The only thing we can do is include this practice in our new anti-smoking campaign, which is aimed at young adults and teenagers. But we need to understand more about it before launching a campaign," she added. The samsum ant's poison gland holds formic acid, a chemical that smells like vinegar and is used by the ants to kill their prey and to ward off attackers.
When they bite, formic acid causes necrosis or deadening of the tissues. Mohammed al Ali, 27, believes the trend started with labourers from the subcontinent who roll the ants into their bhindis - pure tobacco cigarettes rolled up using a tobacco leaf. "It's a social thing for Indian workers," the Emirati said. "Go to Satwa Square and they are sitting there smoking the ants they rolled up into their bhindis.
"It's as easy as picking up the ants, crushing them and then sprinkling them like you would do with marijuana over your tobacco. Then you get high," added Mr Ali, who said he did not know anyone who had tried to smoke the ants. Two young Emiratis, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the ants were collected, ground down and left to dry before being smoked in pure form, either in a roll-up or a pipe.
They said they had not tried it, but had seen others doing it. "Kids just roll it up without any tobacco and smoke it," said one. Dr Riham Ammar, a pulmonologist at Jebel Ali International Hospital, Dubai, believes those who smoke the ants need urgent help. "The samsum ants are high in formic acid, which is extremely harmful when inhaled," he said. "Smoking them could lead to lung fibrosis, lung cancer and damage to the central nervous system.
"It's like committing suicide." The ants were not chemically addictive, he added, but those who smoked them were psychologically addicted to the effect. "People smoking the ants experience sensations associated with smoking cannabis and sniffing glue," Dr Ammar said. He warned that breathing formic acid could irritate the nose, throat and the lungs, causing coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Short-term effects when exposed to formic acid include nausea, headaches, dizziness and vision disturbance. "It could also damage the kidneys," he added. Formic acid is used to make textiles, paper, leather, fumigants, pesticides and solvents, and in electroplating and silvering glass. It is a corrosive chemical and skin contact can severely irritate and burn the skin and eyes. email@example.com