A Comprehensive Overview of Nitrous Oxide Abuse
Anatomy & Physiology, Period 3
Due: March 14, 2013
The issue of inhalant abuse is a multifaceted problem, stretching across many communities and locales in the entirety of the United States. Inhalants as a class of drug vary widely, ranging from volatile solvents and aerosol propellants, to more broadly, any drug delivered by inhalation. Nitrous oxide straddles these categories, as it finds use not only a common dental analgesic, but also as a propellant, in such uses as whipping cream, automotive racing, and rocketry. As a result, nitrous oxide is found in many forms: medical-grade, food-grade, and industrial-grade, with various purities (Erowid).
Commonly known as “laughing gas,” nitrous oxide wears many hats and goes by many names. For example, those who use nitrous oxide in automotive racing or rocketry applications know it as NOS (Alai). In this usage, nitrous oxide is applied as a powerful oxidizer, allowing a vehicle’s engine to combust gasoline more rapidly, with an associated increase in horsepower (Winter). This form of nitrous oxide is packaged with many additives to not only improve its performance but also to deter its abuse (Erowid). When abused recreationally however, nitrous oxide finds many more colorful nicknames, such as “hippie crack” and “nangs” (Erowid). It is a true gas, existing as a gas under atmospheric pressure at room temperature, although it assumes a liquid state when compressed in a gas cylinder (Alai). Nitrous oxide is a strong oxidizing agent with a density of 1.9kg/m 3, and it has a linear molecular form consisting of two atoms of nitrogen and one atom of oxygen (Winter). Nitrous oxide has no color and has a sweet odor, familiar to anybody who has tasted whipped cream (Erowid).
Nitrous oxide is commercially manufactured by heating ammonium nitrate to 240C. Impurities such as ammonia and nitric acid in addition to excess water vapor are removed through an extensive gas scrubbing process. Food-grade nitrous oxide is often stored in white, 8-gram cylinders with a sealed metal puncture cap and packaged in boxes of 100 cylinders. Medical-grade nitrous oxide is stored in French-blue cylinders and is pressurized to ~4400 kPa at room temperature. The Pin Index Safety System configuration for nitrous oxide cylinders is 3-5 (Banks and Hardman). HISTORY OF NITROUS OXIDE ABUSE
British chemist and Presbyterian minister Joseph Humphrey first synthesized nitrous oxide gas in England in 1772. Priestly later published his work in a 1776 journal, “Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air” (Priestly). This publication proved extremely intriguing to the scientific community, leading to additional research and Humphry Davy’s influential 1800 book, “Researches, Chemical and Philosophical: Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide.” Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, nitrous oxide’s usage as a recreational drug became increasingly popular. Traveling medical shows and carnivals featured affectionately named “Nitrous Oxide Capers,” in which attendees paid a small fee to inhale a minute’s worth of gas (Brecher).
In 1844, Dr. Horace Wells, a British dentist, first demonstrated the use of nitrous oxide as a dental anesthetic. His initial testing on a patient at Harvard Medical School was unsuccessful, resulting in the public dismissal of nitrous oxide as a legitimate anesthetic. Nevertheless, nitrous oxide had a sudden resurgence in the dental community in the early 1860s, thanks to a series of dental institutions opened by lecturer and showman Gardener Quincy Colton. These practices utilized nitrous oxide as their primary form of dental anesthesia, henceforth standardizing its usage in the United States (Erowid). METHODS OF ADMINISTRATION
Nitrous oxide is administered via inhalation of compressed gas. Users most frequently obtain nitrous...