What Is Nitrous Oxide?
N2O is a chemical compound consisting of a Nitrogen molecule bonded to an Oxygen atom. Its scientific name is Dinitrogen monoxide, but is popularly known as laughing gas or nitrous. At room temperature, N2O is a colorless, non-flammable, non-toxic gas. Nitrous is commonly used in dentistry due to its anaesthetic (painkilling) properties. At higher concentrations, nitrous acts as a dissociative drug which causes a sense of euphoria and both visual and auditory hallucinations. At high temperature, nitrous decomposes into its component atoms allowing use as an oxidizer or conversion into breathable air. Nitrous is also a greenhouse gas naturally emitted by fertilizer and implicated in global warming.
What Is Nitrous Used For?
Common uses of nitrous oxide include surgical, food service, chemical, and recreational purposes.
- Many people experience nitrous in dental surgery. It acts as an anaesthetic when dispensed at the standard 2 to 1 ratio of nitrous to oxygen. It is often used with other anaesthetics.
- The dairy industry uses nitrous as a mixing and foaming agent as it is non-flammable, bacteriostatic (stops bacteria from growing), and leaves no taste or odor. Under pressure, nitrous dissolves into the fat of the cream and expands upon release, effectively whipping the cream.
- Nitrous is sometimes used in auto racing. It is safe and stable at room temperature, but at ~600C it decomposes into a gas with 33% oxygen per unit volume. Atmospheric air has only ~21% oxygen and thus can burn less fuel in a given volume.
- Nitrous is occasionally used in diving to prepare divers for the nitrous-like effects of nitrogen narcosis. Due to recreational use laws, this is illegal in California and likely all of the United States.
- Nitrous is commonly used as a short-term euphoric high which features audio and visual strobing effects. This use is generally illegal.
Is Nitrous Oxide Illegal?
Given its myriad uses, it is not illegal to sell or possess nitrous oxide. In the United States, there are however many laws regarding the distribution to minors and the recreational inhalation of nitrous. Often a misdemeanor, in several states misuse is a felony. Nitrous Laws lists the relevant statutes in 2002, if anything they will be more punitive now. One Internet merchant was sentenced to 15 months in prison for selling nitrous with devices intended to facilitate its inhalation.
In the State of California, the intent to inhale is a misdemeanor:
381b. Any person who possesses nitrous oxide or any substance containing nitrous oxide, with the intent to breathe, inhale, or ingest for the purpose of causing a condition of intoxication, elation, euphoria, dizziness, stupefaction, or dulling of the senses or for the purpose of, in any manner, changing, distorting, or disturbing the audio, visual, or mental processes, or who knowingly and with the intent to do so is under the influence of nitrous oxide or any material containing nitrous oxide is guilty of a misdemeanor. This section shall not apply to any person who is under the influence of nitrous oxide or any material containing nitrous oxide pursuant to an administration for the purpose of medical, surgical, or dental care by a person duly licensed to administer such an agent.
In the UK, nitrous has traditionally been legal for recreational use. Balloon sellers are a common sight at clubs and festivals. However as of August 2015, recreational nitrous has been banned in the London borough of Lambeth, with violators subject to a £1,000 fine.
In New Zealand, nitrous for non-medical use was made illegal in 2005 under the Medicines Act. It is unclear what that means for whipped cream, but seems to be a generally unenforced interpretation of law.
What Does Nitrous Do?
Physiological effects last a minute or two for a lungful of nitrous and then mainly dissipate. Some residual effects may last up to several minutes later. Unlike other drugs, the effects of nitrous very rapidly recede. As noted in 1845, "Those who inhale the Gas once, are always anxious to inhale it the second time." When inhaled, nitrous produces a variety of physical effects including:
- Disorientation (both spatial and time-based)
- Fixated vision
- Throbbing or pulsating auditory hallucinations
- Similarly pulsating visual hallucinations
- Increased pain threshold
- Deep mental connections
- Lowered vocal pitch (opposite of helium)
Can Nitrous Hurt You?
Yes. The most common dangers from nitrous are due to its disorienting effects and the silliness that surrounds something called laughing gas. Tripping, falling or tipping over in a chair are very common. In one recorded case this caused death. The main cause of death from nitrous seems to be asphyxiation from a bag over the head. Frost bite from the very cold gas is also a concern, especially if dispensing when disoriented.
The use of common sense can avoid most problems!
Because nitrous permeates the lipid (fatty) membranes of your body, it can outgas into your gut or middle ear causing an ache. Chronic heavy usage has very unpleasant effects that could be permanent. Read more detailed dangers of nitrous use.
What Does Nitrous Feel Like?
After several deep breaths of air, I inhale nearly a lungful of nitrous and pull some air down on top and then hold my breath. Within seconds, a light tingling can be felt which seems to increase in frequency. The sensation is much as if waves were traveling up your body or as if you were twisting or spinning. Disorientation increases rapidly and the pulsing sounds/feelings increase, wrapping over one another. It is now, with eyes shut, that I enter a dreamlike state, where I am thinking out something and the external world has essentially ceased to exist. The urge to breathe takes over at some point and partial or whole breaths taken. Open eyes reveal some sort of tunnel vision, with regions of disorientation about the outside. Slowly the throbbing subsides.
At other times I experience a sense of paranoia mixed with disorientation. I have a deep conviction while under the influence that all things are cycling together, that there is some deeper cyclical event occurring. It is as an experience of deja vu continually occurring. The feeling is profound and not altogether pleasant.