A 12-year-old boy who consumed a liquid nitrogen chilled treat at a water park in central South Korea has become the latest victim of the trend.

The dessert, a cupful of puffy cereal soaked in liquid nitrogen, called Dragon’s Breath, which makes the people who eat it exhale smoky nitrogen vapour, left the boy with a 5cm wide hole in his stomach. He was rushed to hospital where he underwent surgery before being placed under intensive care. Has has since been transferred to a general ward.

The hospital’s medical staff believe the boy may have drank liquid nitrogen when he downed the last mouthful of the treat.

Liquid nitrogen is a chemical used by molecular gastronomy chefs to instantly freeze food and drinks. As it evaporates, liquid nitrogen freezes everything about it, including tissues that come in contact with it. Although it is not a toxic substance, its extreme cold temperature makes it unsafe for people to drink and eat because the human body is unable to cope with such a cold internal temperature.

Liquid nitrogen is added to dishes, particularly party cocktails, both as a coolant and because of the vapor it produces. What started as a cuisine fad quickly spread throughout bars and restaurants around the world. Not many, however, know that it could be potentially dangerous.

A similar incident occurred in New Delhi in July which saw a man drink a cocktail with liquid nitrogen at a Gurgaon pub that burnt a hole in his stomach. The Haryana government subsequently banned the use of liquid nitrogen in drinks and food.

There was also a similar high profile case back in 2012 in England which saw a Lancashire woman have her stomach removed in a life-saving operation after drinking a cocktail containing liquid nitrogen at a bar in Lancaster. The British Compressed Gases Association (BCGA) subsequently called for a blanket ban on the use of the substance in drinks.

What is liquid nitrogen?

Liquid nitrogen is actually nitrogen in a liquid state which has extremely low temperature (-196°C). At room temperature it expands rapidly into nitrogen gas. Just one litre of liquid nitrogen produces 700 litres of nitrogen gas. Liquid nitrogen is completely inert, colourless, tasteless, odourless, and has no adverse environmental effects. It is also called a cryogenic liquid and is commonly used in a variety of cooling applications such as food freezing, biological sample preservation, metal treatment and lesion removal.

Is liquid nitrogen safe?

While liquid nitrogen is safe to use in food or beverages, it should not be consumed. The main point is that liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated from the food or drink before serving. Drinking the liquid without full vaporisation means the person will ingest it. Ingesting is dangerous because it causes severe damage to the tissues in the mouth, oesophagus, and stomach. As liquid nitrogen vaporizes it turns into nitrogen gas which causes pressure in the body tissues and can cause holes in the tissues. Since it is extremely cold it can also cause severe frostbite. But while liquid nitrogen is commonly used by trained chefs, it can be extremely dangerous or deadly if not handled properly.