With Carnaval just around the corner, and with future plans to host the 2012 Rio + 20 United Nations talks on sustainable development, the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is in the spotlight — and under increasing pressure to clean up its infamous favelas, or slums, which have been plagued by drug- and gang-related violence for decades. On Nov. 28, a military raid netted police drugs and arms worth nearly $60 million.
The U.S. media reported the seizure of marijuana, cocaine and machine guns, but it left out one major drug that many Brazilians are familiar with, and were probably happy to have off their streets: lança-perfume (pronounced lahn-sah pear-FOO-mee). Police seized more than 1,400 flasks of the drug in one slum, the Complexo do Alemão, alone; more was seized in other area favelas. (More on Time.com: The Most Dangerous Drugs? Alcohol, Heroin and Crack — in That Order)
The drug is inhaled from a high-pressure tube, like whippets or “poppers.” It contains mostly ethyl chloride, plus a scent, and gives users a euphoric, short-lived rush. The chemical was at one time applied as an anesthetic, but fell out of use because of its risk of arrhythmia, a potentially fatal disruption of the heart beat. Now ethyl chloride remains in legitimate circulation as an industrial thickening agent and binder.
In terms of pure quantity, police seized as much lança-perfume as crack-cocaine in the Nov. 28 drug sweep; those two drugs tied for third, after marijuana and cocaine. Why so much? Probably because gangs have been gearing up for March’s Carnaval celebrations. Lança-perfume is as much a Carnaval tradition as drinking and dancing — after each night’s celebration in Brazilian cities like Rio and Salvador, the streets are littered with its telltale metal capsules. There’s even a popular song about the drug. (More on Time.com: Is Drug Use Really on the Rise?)
In addition to potential arrhythmia, there are other dangers associated with the drug. A 2010 Emergency Medicine article described symptoms of ethyl chloride abuse such as a loss of motor coordination, tremor, dizziness, speech slurring, loss of feeling in the legs, drowsiness and hallucination.
Even with the federal police’s 1,400 seized flasks, chances are that production of the drug has barely slowed. On Wednesday, Brazilian news outlet R7 reported that 2 gallons of lança-perfume were seized from a drug lab in a slum in São Paulo.