Yesterday in the Independent newspaper there was an article on how the UK’s Local Government Association have issued a warning about the dangers of using Nitrous Oxide as a party drug and calling on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to issue warnings about the gas. YouTube in particular was singled out as having a duty issue warnings about videos that glamourise the use of the gas as a recreational drug. Facebook has a number of pages that offer supplies of the whippets that are the main ways in which the gas is obtained; I’ve just taken a look on Facebook and the people of Glasgow in particular will be pleased to know that for just around £1 a canister the gas can be delivered to your door along with ‘other supplies’ which presumably means the balloons used during the procedure. And the Facebook page ‘Nitrous Oxide Cardiff University‘ also offers a delivery service ‘EXAMS OVER??? FANCY SOME GAS?? WELL GIVE US A CALL’ there follows a mobile telephone number. Yesterday evening on the BBC’s 6o’clock news there was also a short piece on the rise in the recreational use of Nitrous Oxide.
So what is going on?
Nitrous Oxide was first discovered by Joseph Priestley – the same chap that discovered Oxygen. If inhaled it makes you laugh, often uncontrollably. It also gives a brief sense of euphoria which is why it is being used as a recreational drug.
What makes Nitrous Oxide particularly appealing to users is that it is cheap and not illegal and it is readily available in the form of ‘whippits’ or ‘whippet’ – small canisters of pressurised N2O that are used in both catering and domestic kitchens to whip cream – these are also known as ‘chargers’. Cream Whippers cost around £20 (there are hundreds for sale on eBay and Amazon) and when cream is added the cook then inserts a whippet into the machine, presses a lever and the nitrous oxide flows through the cream producing whipped cream with little or no effort. Those who use the gas for recreational purposes insert a charger and attach a balloon on the nozzle that is intended to deliver the whipped cream. Obviously no cream is inserted otherwise, well you’d end up with a balloon full of whipped cream. The lever is depressed and the pure nitrous oxide fills the balloon. The balloon’s contents are then inhaled to produce the desired effect. Once the machine is purchased the users just buy the chargers – they cost around 30p. Users can also take the easy route and simply buy ready inflated balloons which I understand are available in nightclubs and other venues that are sold at a mark up by peddlers.
Now, you may be wondering why I’m concerned that (mostly) young people are using this gas as a recreational drug. Well, there’s the problem that in rare cases it can cause oxygen deprivation and there is always the danger that the gas will also contain other dangerous gasses such as butane and pentane (a mixture that is used in various industries) which seriously increases the danger of asphyxiation. But there’s one particular reason that I am concerned that young people are increasingly using N2O – it seriously depletes the users B12 which, as we know, can sometimes take many years to be identified as the cause of the user’s symptoms. Here’s what Air Products one of the world’s biggest producers of N2O says in its Safetygram 20 information leaflet for customers:
Most, if not all, chronic effects of nitrous oxide are related to vitamin B12 inactivation by the gas. Therefore, individuals with a vitamin B12 deficiency may be more vulnerable to effects. Long-term exposure to nitrous oxide has been associated with peripheral neuropathy (disorder of the nerves typically starting in the hands and feet) and megaloblastic anemia (red blood cell disorder).
And that’s why I’m concerned – none of the increasing number of articles about the increasing use of Nitrous Oxide mentions the fact that users risk developing serious irreversible nerve damage caused by inhalation of the gas. And the use of the gas as a recreational drug is certainly growing. Last year 470,000 young people in the UK used nitrous oxide recreationally according to government statistics. In just one night last month Hackney Council in east London reported that 1,200 canisters had been seized from outside pubs and clubs in Shoreditch – the canisters being whippets. If this goes on then B12 Deficiency will become an even bigger issue than it is at the moment and some academics believe that 40%, maybe even 50% of people in the industrialised world are already deficient in B12. These figures seem set to rise even further with all of the consequences that will bring with it.
Whilst Industrial users are warned of the long term consequences of exposure to N2O it seems that those using the gas as a recreational drug are blissfully unaware of the long-term problems associated with it. That is why I wrote to the editor of the Independent yesterday to voice my concern. I wonder if they’ll print it? Well have to see.
THEY DID! Today