More than 150 bags of rubbish containing nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas” as it is widely known, canisters and balloons have been picked up off Brighton Beach following a major Pride event at the weekend.

Described by volunteers cleaning up as the most amount of nitrous oxide canisters in one place, Amy Gibson, a member of Ocean’s 8, told the BBC that you couldn’t even see the beach in places.

“Normally we find around 20 bags’ worth of rubbish after a weekend or an event, but we’ve collected 10 times that amount in the first two hours of today’s clean,” she said.

Harriet Doherty

Source: Harriet Doherty

Legislation was introduced back in 2016 making it illegal to give away or sell nitrous oxide for psychoactive purposes under the Psychoactive Substances Act (PSA).

Concerns have been raised that revellers aren’t aware of the dangers of what they are taking and that not enough is being done by the government to enforce the Act.

A popular misconception is that nitrous oxide must be safe to inhale because it is used as a medical gas in dentistry and midwifery – where it is always used in conjunction with oxygen and under qualified medical supervision.

The Royal College of Nursing said too many users are still unaware of the risks which include breathing problems, dangerously increased heart rate and burns.

The Office for National Statistics show an average of five deaths per year linked to the substance since 2014.

Royal College of Nursing Professional Lead for Mental Health Nursing, Catherine Gamble, said, “It might give a short term high, but the long-term damage is no laughing matter.”

“Along with the physical effects on the body, which themselves can be very serious, there are the psychological impacts associated with the abuse of any substance which can lead to addiction.”

Roz Gittins, Director of Pharmacy at drug and alcohol charity Addaction, added, “There are risks associated with its use and breathing problems may occur when large amounts of the gas is inhaled over a short amount of time or in an enclosed space if the person cannot breath in enough oxygen.”

“It may also cause burns due to coldness if inhaled directly from a canister or anaemia and nerve problems due to vitamin B12 deficiency associated with heavy use.”

Doug Thornton told gasworld in December 2018 that like other laws, the PSA is only as good as the enforcement activity which supports it – and the BCGA throughout 2018 has regularly appealed to local authorities, police, universities and festival organisers with the message that where they see litter such as this, they should please consider some increased enforcement activity. This is a message the BCGA continues to push.

Why is it so dangerous?

Inhaling nitrous oxide not only causes potential function impairment, but repeated use also causes irreversible damage.

Taking too much nitrous oxide risks users falling unconscious and/or suffocating from the lack of oxygen.

Other risks include:

  • Immediate death by asphyxiation or by hypoxia-induced heart arrest.
  • Dizziness, which may make the user act carelessly or dangerously.
  • Heavy regular use of nitrous oxide can lead to a deficiency of vitamin B12 and to a form of anaemia. Severe B12 deficiency can lead to serious nerve damage, causing tingling and numbness in the fingers and toes. This can be very painful and make walking difficult. Last summer, 24-year-old Olivia Golding from Bristol was left paralysed after inhaling laughing gas.
  • Regular use can stop you forming white blood cells properly.
  • Folic acid interference.

Rob Cockerill - BW v1

Reckless, irresponsible and highly concerning: this really is no laughing matter

This haul of discarded nitrous oxide canisters is regrettable and shameful, in so many ways. I thought we were living in an age of greater consciousness of the effects our care-free lifestyles are having on the world around us, of the needless harm of plastic waste and a throwaway culture.

Yet here we are talking about more than 150 large bags of laughing gas canisters and empty balloons. It’s a pun often used with nitrous oxide, but this really is no laughing matter. We’re talking about this rubbish on a beach too: a popular public place for families and children, especially during a summer heatwave and school holidays; a place for wildlife and marine life to come to rest or feed. Such litter is both reckless and disrespectful.

I found one of these canisters about six months ago, in the middle of the street. I happened to be on a random geocaching hunt with my four year-old daughter and thought I had found the prize in question in a road sign. It was not, it was a ‘noz’ canister, and sadly I had to try and explain what it was and why it was there. It was a disgusting find on so many levels and I was so disappointed yet to see it there, so prominent and easy to pick up. Any child could have found it, as could any bird and swallowed it. And that was just one canister, not thousands of them.

What’s perhaps worse is this apparent comeback in the use of nitrous oxide for recreational use.

I know of the tireless lobbying and great effort that went into The Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Act of 2016 and its subsequent passing, as well as the great pride when it was launched – strategically in time for festival season – in 2016. How ironic then, that there is no sign of that in one of the biggest ‘Pride’ events in the country.

Where is the pride in enforcing the Act?

This is the point here, the enforcement that is so lacking. As I understand it, The Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Act 2016 was launched to relative fanfare three years ago but in the last two years its policing has been difficult to manage where elements like nitrous oxide use are concerned, and its priority has fallen way down the pecking order in the corridors of power.

We clearly need more action on this. Not only are the effects of the weekend wholly irresponsible and morally unacceptable, but there are very real health dangers attached to the use of laughing gas. This isn’t a law for law’s sake. It’s called The Psychoactive Substances (NPS) Act for good reason.

Using nitrous oxide can cause potential function (thinking, motor function) impairment during the here and now of the ‘drunken’ state it induces, a ‘Hypoxic’ state which can also cause cardiac arrest. Simply inhaling too much could lead to death by asphyxiation. There can also be irreversible damage caused by its repeated use; we mustn’t forget that the hypoxic state that brings about the so-called ‘high’ of its use is basically whereby the brain is partially starved of oxygen – who thinks that’s a good thing, and repeatedly so?

No-one wants to rain on the parade or be dubbed the fun police, but this now illegal high really is no laughing matter – and nor are the after-effects strewn across the beach for countless others to clean up.