Headaches, dizziness, but also persistent neurological problems in the most serious cases: it is dangerous to inhale nitrous oxide, the gas of whipped cream siphons used as a euphoric drug, warns a report of the health agency Handles.
“What we are observing is quite worrying: young people surely have the feeling of not being in danger by consuming this gas, when it is exactly the opposite message that must be conveyed,” explains AFP toxicologist Cécilia Solal, coordinator of the report.
You may have already noticed these small empty metallic cartridges thrown in the gutter: they contained nitrous oxide, normally used as propellant in kitchen siphons.
But it is an indirect use which makes them more and more popular among young people. Emptied into a balloon and then inhaled, nitrous oxide, nicknamed “laughing gas” or “proto”, has rapid euphoric effects.
AN EASY AND CHEAP HALF PUNCH
“It’s an easy smash, not expensive, it lasts 30 seconds and young people do not have the impression that ultimately there could be persistent neurological damage”, according to Cécilia Solal.
This gas itself is not new – it is used medicinally for its pain relieving properties – nor is it used as a drug.
However, this diverted use has “enormously developed” these last years, to lead “to a mass consumption general public”, according to Cécilia Solal. “It coincides with the placing on the market of these small cartridges for whipped cream siphons which reflect the fashion of cooking like chefs.”
This diverted use is boosted by social networks. In May, soccer player Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) was hit by the English press, according to which he had filmed himself inhaling “proto”.
“We have this very reassuring image of a gas that makes us laugh, (…) we inflate a balloon, it has a good-natured side”, laments Cécilia Solal.
The ANSES study is based on data from the French Poison Control Centers. Between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2019, 66 nitrous oxide poisonings were recorded. The majority were young men and more than half were between 20 and 25 years old.
Of the 66 cases, 42 presented “at least one neurological or neuromuscular symptom” (tremors, tingling, involuntary contractions …).
Five people experienced “severe symptoms”, including seizures. One “presented a cardio-respiratory arrest with discovery of a cardiac pathology during his hospitalization”.
Worryingly, these neurological symptoms can persist even after these people have stopped taking nitrous oxide.
“It is a very worrying effect that we had not seen before, and it is a public health problem: we do not have enough perspective to know if these attacks will disappear,” insists Cécilia Solal .
The most serious cases could be linked to heavy consumption over a period of a few months, which undermines the idea of only festive use in the evening: “We have had cases of people who consumed several hundred cartridges a day, all alone at home. “
Beyond the most severe cases, the “proto” can cause “more general symptoms”, such as dizziness.
A PRODUCT TO REMOVE FROM FREE SALE?
All these reasons prompt ANSES to underline “the need to regulate access and labeling of nitrous oxide for its food use”, when the medical profession is already strictly supervised.
“We are dealing with an over-the-counter product, which we can buy in the supermarket or on the internet, so people do not have the impression of having bought a + prohibited + drug”, notes the toxicologist.
“The authorities call on the responsibility of those who participate in promoting this practice of diverted use in particular in a lucrative interest (cartridges and balloons, cartridges and crackers)”, for its part indicated Thursday the Directorate General of Health (DGS ) in a joint press release with ANSES and the French Medicines Agency (ANSM).
The regulations may also soon change.
In December, after an alert from the Ministry of Health and the Mildeca (Interministerial Mission to Combat Drugs), the Senate adopted a bill to prohibit the sale of “proto” to minors. It must be debated in the National Assembly.
Some town halls have taken the lead with municipal decrees. And in January, Denmark became the first country in the European Union to introduce this ban.