Laughing gas, introduced by tourists, takes off in Barcelona

Hospitals receive first patients, as consuming too many doses causes health problems

4 min
Macrobotelló a la platja del Bogatell dissabte passat per les festes de la Mercè

BarcelonaA youngster inhales the air from a balloon for a few seconds and sits on the ground with a smile. He experiences "a tingling" feeling, a "shiver" and a sense of "well-being", he explains, which lasts for half a minute. The air inside the balloon is nitrous oxide, which is better known as laughing gas. It is not a new drug, because tourists who come to Catalonia, especially French and British, have been using it for years, also in Barcelona.

The sound of a spray inflating balloons was constant in the illegal parties from last weekend, Germán Aranda reports. And at least one person needed medical attention during the weekend due to laughing gas. This substance, which has become visible since nightlife moved to public spaces, can cause health problems if many doses are consumed, although so far hospitals have seen few patients related to this drug.

Laughing gas already made headlines in the summer four years ago, when it was one of the trends in the Balearic Islands, especially in Ibiza. But the coordinator of Asociación Bienestar y Desarrollo's (ABD) energy control analysis service, Mireia Ventura, says that she has been talking about nitrous oxide for 20 years. Ventura admits that until now they had seen "sporadic, more experimental uses" of laughing gas in Barcelona, but not as "massive" as last weekend's. Nitrous oxide had been used in medicine and dentistry as an anaesthetic, and is now used in baking to whip cream. Before it was labelled a "new drug" it had been distributed at circuses and fairs "to produce a state of hilarity". According to Ventura, it was also sold at stalls at festivals in Holland and Belgium.

The substance is legal in Spain because, in principle, the use of nitrous oxide "has nothing to do with recreational drug use". Despite this, if it is proven that the gas is being used as a drug, then it can have criminal consequences. Two years ago, a court in Ibiza sentenced three Dutch nationals who had been arrested by the National Police with 500 nitrous oxide canisters of one litre each to 20 months in prison. Although they had initially argued that they wanted to use the gas to make cakes, in the end they agreed to a plea bargain with the prosecution. Also in Ibiza, the Guardia Civil arrested a Frenchman this summer with over a thousand bottles of nitrous oxide, dispensers and balloons to sell it. However, in Catalonia there is no record that the police have intercepted any amount as large as this of laughing gas.

As for the hospitals in Barcelona, they don't notice the impact of laughing gas either. The head of toxicology at the emergency room of the Hospital Clinic, Dr. Emilio Salgado, explains that this year they have treated two patients for the consumption of nitrous oxide: in January and March, both French. Salgado warns that the problem detecting laughing gas is that "unless the patient says they have taken, you cannot know," because "it is eliminated very quickly and leaves no trace in the body," which is why it is not reflected in blood or urine analyses. The coordinator of the toxicology unit of the Hospital del Mar, Dr. August Supervia, says that last weekend they treated a patient for nitrous oxide, but they did not know until her companions admitted it – she only admitted to drinking alcohol.

Euphoria and disinhibition

In principle, for a user to end up in hospital, doses of laughing gas have to be taken continuously. When inhaled there is a feeling "of euphoria and sometimes an exaggerated disinhibition", in which you can get to lose touch "with the perception of time and [experience] confusing time jumps," Supervia explains. These effects last only a few minutes. Salgado adds that, if you inhale several times in a short period of time – in Barcelona they are sold for five euros each – the effects can increase because "the level of consciousness begins to decrease, [the user may] suffer nausea or have a terrible headache". Ventura points out that there are also problems when it is mixed with alcohol and the fact of inhaling it for a long time, when it can cause respiratory depression because nitrous oxide has been retained in the lungs.

Salgado says that a chronic consumption of laughing gas can cause neurological sequelae and Ventura adds that continued use over a few days can cause a deficit of vitamin B12. Despite this, Ventura disassociates the consumption of nitrous oxide "from a direct association with violence". "It's not that laughing gas causes aggression. It is the combination of alcohol and nitrous oxide, since both substances disinhibit, that leaves a person more out of control," he says. Ventura is more concerned about the fact that young people may consume a drug about which they have no information. That's why he warns that nitrous oxide cannot be taken directly from a spray because it comes out at a "very low temperature and can burn the respiratory tract," which is why balloons have to be used. Even so, he wants to avoid "alarmism", because in the UK laughing gas has caused only six deaths in 15 years.

In fact, both Hospital Clinic and the Hospital del Mar say that most of the substance abuse cases last treated weekend were for alcohol, followed by cocaine and cannabis. Although more sporadically, there have also been cases of heroin abuse.