The recreational consumption of nitrous oxide is a growing concern in Europe because of the risks and harms associated with this gas, which “is easy to obtain, cheap and popular with young people”, points out a report by the European Observatory.
The EMCDDA document is released this Monday in Lisbon and presents case studies in Denmark, Ireland, France, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Portugal.
Portuguese specialists are already studying this consumption phenomenon and the police authorities are monitoring and seizing bottles and balloons of this “laughing gas”, which has already entered the Table of New Psychoactive Substances.
In the report, the European drugs agency, based in Lisbon, explains that nitrous oxide has legitimate uses for medical, industrial, commercial and scientific purposes (for example, as a food additive or anesthetic in medicine) and that “its psychoactive effects include feelings of euphoria, relaxation and dissociation and have been known for over 200 years”. However, he adds, in the last decade there has been a large increase in its consumption in various regions of the world, including in some European countries, where the substance has become more widely available, especially since 2017-2018.
“The growing popularity of nitrous oxide can, to some extent, be explained by the ease of acquiring the substance, its low price, its short-term effects and the general perception of consumers that it is a relatively safe drug”, says the report.
According to the observatory, a key factor associated with the increase in consumption of “laughing gas” is the widespread availability of small cartridges of eight grams that can be used to inflate balloons from which it is inhaled.
These cartridges – typically used as aerosol propellants to make whipped cream – are cheap and easy to obtain from places like convenience stores, supermarkets and online vendors.
The availability of larger bottles (15 kg) of gas, deliberately intended for consumption in recreational contexts, is a point of particular relevance, as they make gas significantly cheaper and promote wider, more intense and more frequent consumption.
In some regions, the substance is also advertised and sold through social networks, denounces the document.
Substance has “negative health effects”
The report notes that “a cost-effective nitrous oxide supply chain has been developing and expanding, with specialty internet stores directly promoting the gas for inhalation or food purposes.”
However, the consumption of this substance has “negative effects on health”, and can cause poisoning, burns and damage to the nervous system.
According to the report, the increasing consumption of nitrous oxide has resulted in an “increase in intoxications”, which, “although in a relatively small number compared to users, tend to be associated with more intensive consumption patterns or more frequent”.
The document reveals a slight but significant increase in poisoning cases reported to poison control centers in Europe.
For example, in Denmark cases increased from 16 poisonings in 2015 to 73 in 2021, while in France 134 cases were reported in 2020 – a drastic increase from the 10 cases reported in 2017. In the Netherlands cases increased from 13 , in 2015, to 144, in 2020.
These poisonings include varying degrees of nervous system damage (neurotoxicity) associated with the irreversible deactivation of vitamin B12 in the body (an essential vitamin for healthy nerve function).
Other cases include severe frostbite (caused by exposure to the cold gas released from the container) and lung damage, usually caused by oversized cylinders due to high pressure.
Additionally, in at least one country (the Netherlands) there has been a significant increase in road accidents associated with the consumption of nitrous oxide, the document highlights.
“The vast majority of people either do not consume nitrous oxide or consume it very occasionally”
The report stresses, however, that “it is important to note that the vast majority of people either do not consume nitrous oxide or consume it very occasionally, in relatively small amounts”.
EMCDDA director Alexis Goosdeel says that “the increase in nitrous oxide consumption in some parts of Europe is a cause for concern” and that “there is a general perception among consumers that inhaling nitrous oxide is safe”. 🇧🇷
But when consumption is more frequent or more intensive, the risk of serious damage increases. It is therefore important to avoid normalizing and promoting its consumption in recreational settings. Specific interventions and further research are needed to increase understanding of the risks and reduce harm associated with this substance.”
Alexis Goosdeel states that the answer to the problem requires “a more rigorous monitoring”, since the understanding of consumption, risks and effective responses is limited, in part because this form of consumption of the substance is relatively new.
“In this context, the monitoring of nitrous oxide must be reinforced, requiring more research in areas such as epidemiology, pharmacology, toxicology and supply and effectiveness of treatment and response policies”, he defends.