Nowadays, it is not uncommon in large areas and public places to see small stainless steel cartridges on the ground. These cartridges, originally containing nitrous oxide, are used as a new recreational drug because its inhalation results in an immediate feeling of euphoria.
Nitrous oxide (N2O) is also known as dinitrogen monoxide, nitrous hemioxide, but it is also particularly known as "laughing gas". Nitrous oxide is a gas that comes from natural sources, mainly from soils and oceans. It is a colorless gas with a slightly sweet smell and is heavier than the air.
Nitrous oxide is a psychotropic gas which is used initially in the field of medicine. It is used as an analgesic or anesthetic, especially for short-term anesthesias. This gas allows to reduce pain without inducing a state of total unconsciousness.
It is one of the oldest volatile agents used in medicine for anesthetic purposes, which is why it is subject to drug regulation. In order to obtain its anesthetic qualities, it must be combined with other volatile anesthetics or administered intravenously. The primary purpose of nitrous oxide is to enhance the potential of other anesthetic. It is most often administered by inhalation, and mixed with oxygen for better effectiveness.
In this sector of activity, nitrous oxide (N2O) comes in the form of a liquefied gas contained in cylinders composed of 90% liquid and 10% gas.
Nitrous oxide is also widely used in the food industry as a propellant in whipped cream siphons. It is contained in small stainless steel cartridges and can be purchased in most food stores. It is therefore very easy to obtain and does not cost much.
Finally, this gas, which is nitrous oxide, can also be used in the automotive industry as a combustive. This one makes it possible to increase the power of the engines of cars in automobiles competitions.
Laughing gas: function creep of nitrous oxide
The use of nitrous oxide, also known as “laughing gas”, “proto” or “balloons”, for recreational purposes, has been widely spread among young people. The euphoric effects of this gas have been known for several decades and some people use it regularly. However, in the last 4 years or so, we have heard more and more about it because its use has increased and is causing a lot of damage. The inhalation of laughing gas is mainly observed among young people and in festive environments.
This function creep of nitrous oxide is achieved by inhaling the gas via a balloon inflated with nitrous oxide cylinders or cartridges. This inflated balloon is then inhaled. It is consumed via a balloon because this gas is relatively cold and if it were inhaled directly from the cartridge, it would cause burns.
Nitrous gas is stored in liquid form in cylinders or metal cartridges available for free sale in France. Its inhalation modifies the voice and causes a feeling of immediate euphoria and fullness. The consumers would have the habit to consume several “balloons” in the same time lapse because the effects of that one are immediate and of very short duration (2 to 3 minutes).
In November 2021, the ANSES (National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety) as well as the ANSM (National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products) provided figures more than alarming. In a report, these organizations attest that there were “134 cases reported to anti-poison centers in 2020 against 46 in 2019, 254 reports to addiction surveillance centers in 2020 against 47 in 2019”.
According to their studies, the majority of poisonings with this gas affect young adults between 21 and 22 years old. The increase of consumption among minors is also important (20% of intoxication cases recorded in 2020 against 13.6 in 2019).
Cases of abuse and excessive consumption are constantly increasing. Now, consumers tend to purchase nitrous oxide cylinders directly, which represents the equivalent of about 100 conventional cartridges used for kitchen siphons.
Risks of laughing gas
Recreational use of laughing gas represents a risk for both health and the environment.
Certain risks and accidents can occur immediately when laughing gas is consumed. We observe losses of consciousness, a form of disorientation that can cause falls. A risk of loss of the cough reflex is to be taken into account, as well as a risk of asphyxia caused by a lack of oxygen. Other less serious side effects can happen such as nausea, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
If risks can occur at the time of punctual inhalations, it is obvious that repeated and regular consumption will be even more dangerous and risky. The risk of asphyxiation remains present, and to that, cardiovascular complications (example: cardiac rhythm disorders), psychic disorders (example: addiction) and neurological damages that can be severe are added to the list of incurred risks. These can have irreversible damage on the health of consumers and can even lead to death.
It should also be noted that in addition to the risks that the consumers take for their own health, they are a danger for others during "non responsible" consumption. Many cases of driving under the effect of this psychotropic gas have been observed, resulting in the majority of cases in serious or fatal road accidents.
In addition to the health consequences of nitrous oxide, it also has a certain impact on the environment.
Main sources of N2O emissions
To understand the environmental impacts of nitrous oxide, we must first understand the sources of its emissions in nature.
Indeed, the agricultural sector is the main source of nitrous oxide emissions and represents about 90% of the emissions of this gas. It is the use of nitrogenous substances such as nitrogen fertilizers, through the process of nitrification and denitrification of soils, that leads to the emission of nitrous oxide. The processing of crop residues is also a reason for these gas emissions.
The agricultural sector is not the only field of activity to release nitrous oxide in the atmosphere and in the soil, the chemical industry is also responsible. It accounts for 5% of nitrous oxide emissions and is therefore the second main source of emissions of this gas. In this case, nitrous oxide is used in the manufacture of certain acids (nitric acids and adipic acids).
Direct impacts on the environment
These gas emissions have a direct and very important impact on the environment.
Even if initially this gas comes from natural sources, for more than a century, the quantities produced have become extremely important because of human activity.
This results from a progressive, constant and consequent increase in the concentration of nitrous oxide in the air, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. Indeed, it is considered the third main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. It has a strong "warming" potential. It is 25 times higher than CH4 and 300 times higher than CO2 when it is in the air (with equivalent mass).
In addition to the air pollution produced by the gas itself, street pollution is an additional problem. Used nitrous oxide cartridges that are used for recreational purposes are very often left on the ground and are not thrown away in garbage cans or containers.
In the case of regulated use of nitrous oxide (agricultural sector, chemical or automotive industry), it is necessary to take precautionary measures. It is possible to use gas detectors in order to be warned if gas is present in excessive quantities in the air. Devices such as the NS2 ATEX gas detector, the NB3 fixed gas transmitter for safe areas, the B12 gas transmitter sensor or the OLCT100 are ideal for calibration and other gas tests.
If the gas is present in too large a quantity in the air, it is necessary to equip yourself immediately with adequate respiratory protection such as the M20.2, Oxy3000, Saver, SK1203 masks and air purification systems.
Speaking of protection and safety, it is necessary to improve the information to the youth about the abuses related to the use of this gas in recreational practices because it is harmful and dangerous.
On June 1, 2021, a law was adopted in order to prevent and warn about the use of nitrous oxide. This law prohibits the sale of this gas to minors.