A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How does nitrous oxide work? Is it dangerous?

April 12, 1985

Dear Cecil:

For the last several years, I've been dipping my lungs into a substance called nitrous oxide — known to dentists as laughing gas, and on the street as whippets. In its most portable form, the gas is packed into handy single-serving cartridges, which are then discharged into a balloon or metal cannister, from which the gas is inhaled. What follows is ninety seconds of euphoria. As a clean-cut all-American boy, I know that anything this enjoyable must be harmful. But how — and how much? A friend showed me an article which listed four dangers: (1) damage to the brain from lack of oxygen; (2) damage to the lips from "freezer burn," caused by excessively cold equipment; (3) damage to the lungs from inhaling too much too soon; and (4) damage to the head from hitting it during a nirvanaesque blackout. The last three are trivial and easily avoidable (you'll have to take my word on this one, Cece), and the first seems insignificant — you don't go that long without oxygen in this experience. But my question remains. Two questions, actually. (1) How does the stuff work? (2) What's it doing that can't be undone? I don't use it that often, but I'd like to know how soon I can expect to start drooling down the front of my person.

Cecil replies:

Aren't we getting a little old for this, J.? At the rate some people are going, we won't know whether to attribute drooling to drugs or the onset of second childhood. You'll be interested to know there's a book called Nitrous Oxide (Edmond Eger, editor), which reveals the following facts:

(1) Despite oodles of scientific experiments, they don't exactly know how nitrous oxide works. "The best surmise," it says here, "is that the gas acts indirectly, perhaps through a pain-inhibiting system in the spinal cord that releases a substance whose effect in turn inhibits a particular neurotransmitter required for pain-signal passage." Check.

(2) No short-term harm is attributed to nitrous oxide, the experts say, although accidents are an occasional problem. A patient in England died in the 1960s after breathing gas that was contaminated with the lethal higher oxides of nitrogen. Inspection standards supposedly are higher here in the U.S., but that doesn't mean you have nothing to worry about. Barry Kramer, founder of Creem magazine, died in 1981 at age 37 of an apparent overdose involving nitrous and unnamed other drugs, according to news reports. So some caution seems to be in order.

You might also wish to be careful if you decide to manufacture nitrous oxide in your basement. Applying heat to solid ammonium nitrate, which is the customary method of preparation, is a bit tricky, and periodically results in explosions. Two shiploads of the stuff blew up once at Texas City, leveling the town. Fortunately, due to the enormous amount of gas released, no one really cared.

As for long-term effects, nitrous oxide is not a carcinogen or a mutagen. However, chronic exposure can mess up the vitamin B12 in your system, which can lead to impaired DNA synthesis and poor cell growth. Chronic users can end up with something akin to pernicious anemia. Those most in peril are hospital operating-room staff who are exposed to small amounts of leaked gas over long periods, although 24-hour exposure to a high concentration will also do the job. This has not prevented med students (not to mention free-lance dope fiends such as yourself) from freely indulging — supposedly 20% of the pre-meds at one school had tried it. Another interesting factlet is that nitrous oxide is used to pressurize aerosol whipped cream cans. "A resourceful child," I read here, can give him or herself a dose right in the store by simply inverting the can.

One last word of warning: if you ever decide to cop a whiff from professional anesthesiology equipment, don't strap on the mask, lest you lose consciousness and kill yourself. If you must die laughing, I'd prefer you stuck with the Straight Dope.

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