The extent of the ‘crack hippy’ problem first became apparent last summer in the wake of the Notting Hill carnival.
As extraordinary photos of the cleanup revealed, among the 300 tons of trash dumped by revelers were canisters filled with industrial-grade nitrous oxide.
Designed for caterers to whip cream quickly and easily, they are now commonly used to “get high” instead.
The fad of filling balloons with nitrous oxide and then inhaling it has been around for a few years.
The instant effect can be a buzz, including feelings of euphoria, calmness, and fits of laughter, hence the drug’s nickname of ‘laughing gas’ and ‘hippy crack’.
But while nitrous oxide, which has the chemical formula N2O, has long been viewed as a relatively harmless substance, concerns have grown over the health risks it poses to a generation.
As extraordinary photos of the cleanup revealed, among the 300 tons of trash dumped by revelers were bins filled with canisters of industrial-grade nitrous oxide.
Concerned neurologists have warned that they are seeing increasing numbers of young people suffering spinal cord and nerve damage.
In the worst cases, those affected have suffered life-changing impacts, including paralysis. This is because heavy and regular use of the drug can lead to vitamin B12 deficiency and a form of anemia. Severe vitamin B deficiency can cause severe nerve damage.
A small but growing number of deaths have also been directly attributed to the drug, with nitrous oxide mentioned on 42 death certificates from 2010 to 2019.
If nitrous oxide is inhaled through the mouth from a pressurized container or in a confined space, it can also cause sudden death from lack of oxygen.
Last year, the family of Kayleigh Burns told how the 16-year-old died after inhaling gas at a house party.
Asthmatic, she was taken to the hospital after collapsing. While the exact cause of Kayleigh’s death has yet to be revealed, her relatives have joined a growing chorus of calls for the drug to be banned or restricted. “It’s all fun and games while she’s taking it, but the long-term effect on her body can be very dangerous,” adds Kerry-Anne Donaldson.
The 25-year-old receptionist from London is wheelchair bound due to spinal damage caused by nitrous oxide she began inhaling in 2017.
Last year the family of Kayleigh Burns (pictured) recounted how the 16-year-old had died after inhaling gas at a house party
Police officers carry canisters of nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, confiscated from revelers planning to use it as a drug.
In the last decade, its popularity as a recreational drug has grown rapidly, and half a million young people now use it regularly.
“I stopped doing it two years ago. But in those two years my body was falling apart from all the ballooning I did. Now I don’t even remember what it feels like to not be in pain, it’s much more dangerous than people think.
Discovered in 1772, the anesthetic and pain-relieving properties of nitrous oxide have been used in human and veterinary medicine for more than 150 years.
Another use is as a spray propellant for caterers to make whipped cream.
But in the last decade, its popularity as a recreational drug has grown rapidly, and half a million young people now use it regularly. To counter this, the production, sale, or supply of nitrous oxide for its psychoactive effects was made illegal in 2016.
Today, sites offer nitrous oxide for sale (for example, a box of ten ‘cream’ cartridges each containing 8 grams of nitrous oxide for £7), telling shoppers it’s ‘for food production only’ ‘ and asking them to confirm that they have finished. 18
Part of the concern revolves around the way users access the drug. In the past, most bought it in small, one-shot metal canisters before transferring its contents to a balloon from which the gas was inhaled.
But in recent months, experts say many have switched to large tubes capable of delivering 80 times the usual amount. Prices for these jars, containing between 600 and 650 grams, start at £29.99 and can be easily purchased online.
“These big new canisters are a real concern,” says Stephen Ream, director of Re-Solv, a solvent abuse advice and support charity. ‘A young man we have been supporting was using ten a day. When you’re doing the small ones, you know how many you’re going through, but when you’re using a big one, you lose count.
Larger boats also carry the risk of serious injury from “cold” burns. Users often hold the canisters between their thighs when filling the balloons.
As the container is discharged, it becomes icy, which means it can cause a frostbite-like burn to bare skin.
Even more dire are the warnings from doctors like Dr. David Nicholl, 57, a consultant neurologist at Birmingham hospitals for 20 years.
Shortly before the covid pandemic in 2020, he began seeing patients every two months with tingling in the hands or legs and difficulty walking due to neurological damage. Now he says an “epidemic” of such patients comes in every week.
“Some people die,” adds Dr. Nicholl. ‘I haven’t experienced that, but in the last 18 months four or five have been unable to walk. It’s just tragic and totally preventable. These are users who think everything is a bit of fun and have no idea that they could end up not being able to walk for the rest of their lives.’
The message is clear: the laughing gas epidemic is no laughing matter.