Nitrous oxide no laughing matter

It’s another Friday night in Malibu, which, more often than not, means another party thrown by another kid whose parents are either out of town or out of touch.

By 9 p.m., a couple hundred high school students are milling about the host’s yard and home, drinking, smoking and socializing. There’s the usual cluster around the kegs that breaks up only when the beer is all tapped out. Another cluster has formed, however. This one is not on the patio, but inside the house, by the laundry room, where someone is filling party balloons from a tank that is resting on the dryer and handing them out to the waiting teen-agers.

A girl who has one of these balloons pinched between her fingers is standing in the hallway. She inhales from her balloon a few times before staggering away, one hand pressed to her forehead and the other outstretched to the side, struggling for balance while still clutching the balloon. She suddenly slumps to the floor, dazed and nearly passed out. Concerned friends who had seen her reel and fall rush to her side to see if she is all right. Someone takes the balloon away from her and disposes of it. The balloons are being filled with nitrous oxide.

Nitrous oxide (N2O), also known as laughing gas, has been used for recreational purposes since the late 18th century and is known for its use in dental surgery as an anaesthetic. It has only been in the last year, or so, however, that nitrous has hit the party scene in Malibu. While the drug has yet to reach the parties in Calabasas and Agoura, it is now very uncommon not to have a nitrous oxide tank at in the Malibu parties.

“Nitrous oxide elevates the threshold of pain,” says Malibu dentist Dr. Tom Hirsch, “which is why it’s used in surgery.”

That’s also why it is used as a recreational drug. In addition to physical numbness, nitrous inhalation also erases fear and anxiety, sending the user on a mental and emotional trip. The effects of inhaling nitrous are felt almost immediately, making it a favorite among those looking for a quick high. It wears off after about 90 seconds, though, compelling many to go back for a second balloon, and then a third and so on, until they are addicted to the gas. For those who can quit after one balloon, it would seem to be the ideal drug.

“It’s a great high,” said Amy, a senior at Malibu High School, who says she’s a frequent nitrous user. “And it wears off really fast, so you can still drive home [from a party] afterwards.”

Some longtime use, however, makes driving anywhere impossible. The people who inhale balloon after balloon of nitrous “stay stupid for, like, three days after,” said MHS sophomore Marc.

Nitrous isn’t just a party drug, either. More and more teens are using it at home before they go to school in the morning, when they are watching television in the afternoon, or listening to music before they go to bed.

“I do it all the time,” said MHS senior Jason. “I don’t believe it’s that dangerous.”

The teens seem unaware of the very real dangers. When not enough oxygen is taken in with the nitrous, hypoxia may occur, which can result in permanent brain damage. Hirsch explained that in dental surgery, 20 percent oxygen is “always mixed with the nitrous” administered to the patient. People using nitrous as a recreational drug do not necessarily realize that such a large amount of air is needed to avoid hypoxia. There are many other dangers, too.

“N2O users can become quadriplegic from the neck down and never regain feeling,” explained Hirsch. “Also, birth defects result from pregnant women inhaling nitrous oxide. This is not a safe drug.”

In addition to paralysis and birth defects, prolonged use of nitrous makes it difficult to conceive, kills brain cells, damages the bone marrow and nervous system, and there have been cases of both transient and permanent hearing loss. Horror stories include people going to the emergency room because of paresthesias (no sense of touch or pain), difficulty controlling arms and hands, trouble climbing stairs and walking, sexual dysfunction, and even loss of control over bladder and bowel movements. This does not include the short-term side effects, such as temporary loss of motor skills, nausea and vomiting, and hangovers. According to Hirsch, when people overdose on nitrous, they “stop breathing and die. They die of suffocation.”

Nitrous is obtained in many ways. The N2O used for medical purposes can be purchased from chemical supply houses and gas companies. The tanks run anywhere from $35 to $75. Nitrous is also used as a propellant for household products, such as whipped cream, because of its nonexistent odor or taste. Unshaken, nitrous can be inhaled straight from a can. For parties, though, people often claim to be caterers producing large quantities of whipped cream and are able to purchase tanks for $300, or, if already possessing a tank, can get it filled for only $40. In Malibu, this is cheap for a lot of the kids, some of whom are accustomed to buying drugs like Ecstasy, where one tab costs the same amount as a whole tank of nitrous oxide.

Nitrous is also used to speed engines for auto racing. The tanks and feeder units used to inject nitrous into the carburetors can be purchased at high performance racing shops, along with bulk nitrous gas. However, the nitrous used on engines is mixed with hydrogen sulfide, which causes anyone breathing it to become violently ill. Before using racing grade nitrous for inhalation purposes, the hydrogen sulfide must be filtered out, which can be done by boiling the gas through a strong basic solution, such as baking soda.

“It’s not worth it,” said Marc. “I’d rather smoke pot.”

Added to the physical harm nitrous can cause is the fact that recreational inhalation of the gas is illegal.

“Used under proper supervision in a dental office, it’s safe,” said Hirsch. “But used recreationally, you can cause yourself a lot of damage.”

Editor’s note: Names of teen-agers have been changed to protect those quoted in this article.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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