Nitrous oxide: a clean, colorless, oxidizing gas with a slightly sweet odor. It is used by the food industry as a propellant to make such items as whipped cream, and by auto racers to boost engine performance.
Dental and medical professionals use it as an anesthetic; most people know it as "laughing gas."
Nitrous oxide also is used to get a quick high by a small but significant population of adolescents and young adults, who call it "buzz bomb," "shoot the breeze," "whippets" and "NOX."
They inhale cartridges used for making whipped cream and regular users refer to the practice as "nanging" because of the repetitive sound distortions induced by the drug.
Whatever its name, abuse of nitrous oxide is no laughing matter.
Resurgence of Laughing Gas Use
A research letter in the respected British medical journal The Lancet reported a resurgence of laughing gas use among New Zealand college freshmen a few years ago. Approximately 12 percent of students surveyed reported using it for recreational purposes and 3 percent were regular users (once a month or more frequently).
Most alarming is that few students in this study were aware of the potential acute or chronic ill effects from the use of nitrous oxide. And information about nitrous oxide abuse is not included routinely in drug education programs.
There is no reason to think that college students in the United States – or their parents -- are any more educated about the consequences of inhaling this drug than their peers in other countries.
How It Works
Inhaling nitrous oxide produces a brief euphoric "high" caused by oxygen deprivation. This state is followed by relaxation, slurred speech, difficulty walking or maintaining balance, confused thinking, a lowered pain threshold, and possible loss of consciousness.
Physical injuries associated with abuse of the gas -- falls, bumping into objects, concussions -- occur largely because of accidents associated with these impairments.
Asphyxiation takes place when nitrous oxide depletes the oxygen supply to the body because too much of the inhalant is in the lungs. If inhalation continues, a person will die: critical consequences for a gas that is easily obtained and considered a harmless party "high" by most users.
"Whippets," or nitrous oxide whipped-cream rechargers, are inexpensive and available in some grocery and hardware stores as well as via the Internet. The drug also is packaged in balloons inflated with the gas and sold by dealers at many youth gatherings such as concerts or "raves."
Legal Penalties are not Enough
Many states – including New Jersey -- now have severe penalties for the possession and selling of nitrous oxide. Ohio's laws are typical: Illegal possession of the gas is a fifth-degree felony with a maximum fine of $2,500 and 6 to 12 months in prison for repeat offenders
Intent to sell is a fourth-degree felony with a maximum fine of $5,000 and a prison term of 6 to 18 months.
But laws do not discourage or prevent use; they only punish it.
Education is the lasting answer.
Repeating the Message
Schools -- on every level from preschool through college -- need to join with the media to repeat the message that inhaling any substance is not only dangerous; it can be potentially fatal.
It is particularly critical that such information be presented to children in elementary school, as early as third and fourth grade, when research indicates that sniffing and huffing of substances often begins.
It is also important that parents receive the same educational message.
Making Parents Aware
A study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America indicated that nearly 4 of every 10 parents are not aware of the risks of inhalant abuse. Information on this important topic needs to be distributed both via the media and during parent programs in the schools.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America once had a wonderful ad campaign warning parents of the dangers of inhalant abuse among kids.
It was called "Needle/Spray Can" and featured an image of a spray can with a needle sticking out of the top, alerting parents that ordinary household products can be just as dangerous to kids as injected street drugs, like heroin.
Perhaps that campaign should be reinstated with the additional information that college students are also at risk for abusing inhalants.
While there is no easy solution to the problem of drug experimentation among youth, encouraging and assisting parents to become informed participants in raising drug-free children is an excellent beginning.
Let's make sure our community and schools continue to allocate sufficient resources -- financial, personnel and curricular -- to achieving this goal.
Judy Shepps Battle is a New Jersey resident, addictions specialist, consultant and freelance writer. She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information on this and other topics can be found at her website at http://www.writeaction.com/.
Copyright 2009 Judy Shepps Battle