Laughing gas to be banned in the Netherlands: What harm can it cause?

The Dutch government has decided to ban nitrous oxide, popularly known as laughing gas, from January 2023. This comes amid growing concerns over the risks it poses to health and road safety.

The sale, import and possession of laughing gas will be banned in the Netherlands from 1 January 2023, as per media reports. However, it can continue to be used for medicinal purposes and in the food industry.

What is laughing gas and what are its side effects? Why is the Dutch government banning it? We explain.

What is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide or laughing gas is a colourless and odourless substance that is non-flammable.

Also known as the happy gas, when inhaled it gives the user a light-headed, relaxed and euphoric feeling.

It is used in medical and dental procedures as a sedative to induce relaxation and reduce anxiety.

WebMD notes that nitrous oxide is a depressant and slows one’s body down. It can also cause mild hallucinations for some.

Those who inhale the gas may feel that their arms and legs are heavy, while also experiencing a tingling sensation in their limbs, as per WebMD.

Nitrous oxide is also used as a recreational drug – for its euphoric effect – by emptying into a bag or balloon and then inhaling, or directly putting it into the mouth.

It is also found in the silver chargers used to make whipped cream.

Side effects of laughing gas

While side effects can occur for those who consume the gas, most do not have adverse reactions or complications.

Mostly those who have inhaled a large quantity of the gas or took it too fast witness side effects, says Healthline website.

The common short-term effects include excessive sweating, shivering, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and fatigue.

Some people might complain of allergic reactions after inhaling nitrous oxide. The symptoms of these reactions include fever, chills, wheezing and difficulty breathing, as per Healthline.

There are certain risks involved when nitrous oxide is used for recreational purposes such as lowering of blood pressure, fainting, and heart attack, among others.

As per WebMD, the prolonged use of the substance can lead to memory loss, depression, incontinence, psychosis, ringing in the ears, etc.

Healthline lists the signs of a possible overdose of the gas which comprises irritation in the nose, eyes, and throat, difficulty in breathing, choking or tightness in the chest, seizures, bluish lips, fingers and toes, psychosis or hallucinations as well as an increase in heart rate.

“Heavy regular use can also lead to a vitamin deficiency that can cause permanent nerve damage and lasting paralysis,” says BBC.

It is also dangerous to drive or operate machinery while under the effects of the laughing gas.

Why is it being banned in the Netherlands?

Announcing the ban, the Dutch state secretary for health, welfare and sport, Maarten Van Ooijen, said the recreational use of laughing gas posed “enormous health risks”, reports The Guardian.

It was also associated with “terrible” road accidents involving those who did not use the drug.

As per the road safety monitor TeamAlert, as many as 1,800 accidents across the Netherlands over the past three years have been caused due to the laughing gas, BBC reported.

“Almost two a day, figures that really shocked us,” Maartje Oosterink of TeamAlert was cited by AD newspaper earlier this month.

As per a police survey by the Dutch public broadcaster NOS conducted for a nearly three-year period until October 2021, 63 fatal traffic accidents were linked to gas. The offences committed by users of the drug included dangerous driving and driving without a licence, reports The Guardian.

The ban would authorise the police to act swiftly if they found anyone with nitrous oxide gas canisters in their vehicle, Justice minister Dilan Yeşilgöz said, as per BBC.

The laughing gas, sold in small metal canisters (which are emptied into balloons before inhaling), is not only being used by adults but also teenagers in the Netherlands.

The Trimbos Institute, which studies drugs and mental health, noted one in 50 Dutch adults used laughing gas in 2020, reported The Guardian.

The institute also warned of the spike in the use of the drug by 12- to 14-year-olds, who do not consider it a “real drug” and are unaware of its risks.

BBC reports that the popularity of nitrous oxide has increased among clubbers and festival-goers in the past few years, and it is mostly used along with other drugs like MDMA (ecstasy) or ketamine.

Over 37 per cent of Dutch party-goers – mainly youngsters – use laughing gas on a regular basis, BBC reported citing the Trimbos Institute.

Some experts have called for the January ban to be imposed sooner.

“The nitrous oxide ban should come into effect as soon as possible, rather yesterday than today,” Robert Riezebos, a cardiologist at the Greater Amsterdam city hospital, had told the newspaper Het Parool in May, as per The Guardian.

But not all have rallied behind the ban.

The Industry Association for Responsible Laughing Gas Suppliers admitted there was a problem, but contended that stringent rules would “work better than a ban”, reports The Guardian.

With inputs from agencies

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