the dangerous legal fashion of nitrous oxide or laughing gas

One of the best known aspects of the United States in the world are the strange laws that persist to this day in some states or cities. For example, in the city of Denver, in the state of Colorado, it is illegal to drive a black car on Sundays and in Chesapeake City, in the state of Virginia, you cannot trick or treat on Halloween if you are over 14 years old. Well, this week has become popular a new law of the state of New York for having provoked grimaces of disbelief around the world.

From now on, those under the age of 21 will not be able to buy cans of whipped cream, the same restriction that exists for them to buy tobacco or alcohol. Although it may seem like a crazy law, it responds to a very current concern: some young people they have learned to take drugs with these utensils and the associated risks are quite dangerous. But, is it true that we have a powerful drug at our fingertips in supermarkets or in our own homes?

If we buy a can of spray whipped cream and go to its list of ingredients we can see that It carries an additive known as propellant gas or E942. This additive is nothing other than nitrous oxide (N2O) —in fact, some of these products list it directly in their ingredients as “propellant gas N2O”—which is commonly known as laughing gas. This chemical has many applications and, specifically, in the case of cream, it is used to make it go from cream to foam.

From cream to balloon

When we use one of these sprays, the nitrous oxide helps propel the cream, give it its foamy consistency and escape into the atmosphere; there is no danger in its use. However, some youngsters have found a way to remove the N2O canister and use it as a recreational drug, leaving the cream content intact. Now anyone who sells spray whipped cream in New York State to people under 21 and gets caught will have to pay a fine of $250 if it is your first time and $500 if you have repeated.

People who consume this gas recreationally seek to experience a peak of euphoria and the famous laugh that gives the colloquial name to this drug. It is popularly considered as a very little dangerous drug, whose effects, moreover, last a short time. However, its consumption can cause serious health damage: “To begin with, if you drink the gas directly from the container, it can burn your lips, tongue, throat and even your lungs, because it stays very cold” explains Gorka Allende, pharmacist.

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For this reason, recreational users of nitrous oxide often discharge the gas in balloons. In this way, warms up and allows administration in smaller amounts than those that could enter the body directly from the pressure vessel. However, in these cases its consumption is not safe either: “This gas lowers blood pressure and causes dizziness, but it can cause cardiorespiratory depression and even death from this cause,” warns the expert.

Serious consequences

Nitrous oxide is a legal substance and, in fact, it is present in cars, in aerosols and is used, apart from in cooking, in medicine as an anesthetic. Now, in all these fields it is not considered dangerous because its proportion is measured. Precisely, Allende warns that the danger lies in using it in high quantities: “There are consumers who abuse it, but it is also possible to overdose if each time the effect wears off the user continuously inhales it again“.

The abusive consumption of nitrous oxide for recreational use has been the subject of several studies in recent years. One of the most recent was carried out by scientists from the French city of Strasbourg: the authors explain that during the confinement due to the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, “a high incidence of neurological complications from nitrous oxide abuse”. They explain that the abuse of this substance should be taken into account when there are compatible neurological symptoms and high levels of homocysteine.

Homocysteine ​​is an amino acid that is usually broken down by the action of vitamin B12 and it has been shown that the abusive consumption of nitrous oxide prevents its action. For this reason, the authors of this study recommend supplementing patients with this vitamin as soon as they are diagnosed. This other study from 2021 published in Neurological Research observed that patients who abuse nitrous oxide suffer from an abnormal electrophysiological response in the extremities.

Other studies, like this published in Brain & Development, have found associations between nitrous oxide abuse and limb numbness and weakness and spinal cord damage. In other words, nitrous oxide is not a drug that should be treated as an innocuous substance, and the population most sensitive to its use—adolescents and young people—should be made aware of its potential health risks.


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