What is nitrous oxide? Laughing gas could be banned from sale to tackle antisocial behaviour

Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas (Susannah Ireland / AFP via Getty Images)
Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas (Susannah Ireland / AFP via Getty Images)

Ministers are reportedly planning to ban the sale and possession of what is known as laughing gas as part of a bid to tackle antisocial behaviour.

The Times newspaper reports that, under the proposals, drug-misuse laws would be updated to allow people found with nitrous oxide gas in public to be prosecuted.

After cannabis, laughing gas is the most commonly used drug among 16- to 24-year-olds in England.

The paper said that, under the changes, only those with a “legitimate reason” would be exempt. Examples given include chefs, who use it for whipped cream or freezing and chilling food.

The substance can also be used as pain relief during dental treatment or childbirth.

There are concerns about health problems caused by its usage, with cases where it has been linked to nerve damage, paralysis, or death.

Current legislation bans the knowing or reckless supply of nitrous oxide for inhalation but there have been calls for a ban on all direct consumer sales as part of a tightening up of the law on the commonly used drug.

In a 2019-20 Crime Survey for England and Wales, almost nine per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds said they’d taken nitrous oxide in the past year, a rise of 6.1 per cent from 2012-13, the Guardian reported.

Here’s everything you need to know about nitrous oxide.

What is nitrous oxide?

Nitrous oxide, commonly known as nos, laughing gas, or nitrous, is a colourless, non-flammable gas that, at room temperature, has a slightly sweet smell and taste.

It has significant medical uses, specifically in dentistry and surgery, for its anesthetic and pain-reducing qualities.

Its colloquial name, laughing gas, is due to the euphoric effects it has upon inhaling.

The drug was discovered by chemist Joseph Priestley in 1772, and has subsequently been the subject of myriad experiments and cartoons, and became a useful tool in medical settings to treat severe pain.

It also inactivates the vitamin B12, which can lead to neurological problems, as, “B12 is crucial in the production of myelin, which is the fatty sheath around nerves in your body,” explains Dr Trevor Pickersgill, a consultant neurologist at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board.

When B12 is inactivated by nitrous oxide, the myelin is no longer kept in good repair, which can cause “spinal-cord damage, which can be irreversible if untreated,” Pickersgill said.

What are the effects of nitrous oxide and is it safe?

Inhaling nitrous oxide can be fatal if you don’t get enough oxygen, which is known as hypoxia, explains the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, its short-term impacts include:

  • euphoria

  • numbness of the body

  • sedation

  • giddiness

  • uncontrolled laughter

  • unco-ordinated movements

  • blurred vision

  • confusion

  • dizziness and / or light-headedness

  • sweating

  • feeling unusually tired or weak

  • sudden death

Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide can cause:

  • memory loss

  • vitamin B12 depletion (long-term depletion causes brain and nerve damage)

  • ringing or buzzing in the ears

  • incontinence

  • numbness in the hands or feet

  • limb spasms

  • potential birth defects (if consumed during pregnancy)

  • weakened immune system

  • disruption to reproductive systems

  • depression

  • psychological dependence

  • psychosis

Why are ministers planning to ban the sale of nitrous oxide?

Last year, doctors and police issued a warning over a rise in cases of nerve damage linked to the use of nitrous oxide.

Experts have revealed that, as the use of the drug has increased, so too have cases of spinal-cord and nerve damage, including paralysis.

Speaking to the Guardian last year, Dr Nikos Evangelou, an academic neurologist at the University of Nottingham, said: “There is no doubt that we have seen an increase of cases, as this was almost unknown last year and now [we] see cases weekly.

Nitrous oxide canisters can be legally obtained and, according to research, notifications of acute poisoning increased from three in 2011 to 32 in 2020.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak cited the problem in a speech at new year on antisocial behaviour. He said that “nitrous oxide in children’s playgrounds… makes life miserable for so many”.