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Small silver canisters are becoming noticed more often. Dog walkers see them discarded in green spaces. They are left behind at music festivals. And they are increasingly seen lying around in public parks.

The canisters contain nitrous oxide gas and they can lawfully be sold for use in food products, such as whipped cream. However, nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas) is the second most commonly used recreational drug in England and Wales after cannabis.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) says many people remain ignorant of the risks and warns that the public is too complacent. Using the gas is associated with breathing difficulties, dangerously-increased heart rate, burns, and even death. People have died by taking too much nitrous oxide and falling unconscious and/or suffocating from the lack of oxygen.

Legislation introduced in May 2016 made it illegal to sell the gas for psychoactive purposes, but enforcing the legislation has proved difficult because of its uses in food preparation and some medicines. The effects of nitrous oxide include feelings of euphoria and calmness, dizziness, fits of laughter, and sound distortions or hallucinations.

RCN mental health lead Catherine Gamble said: “It might give a short-term high, but the long-term damage can be nothing to laugh about. Far too few people know about the risks.”

Alongside the physical problems, regular use can also lead to addiction, she added.

How dangerous is laughing gas?

Nitrous oxide use has been linked to 17 deaths in the last 3 years, according to official statistics, with around one in 11 16-to 24-year-olds using it last year.

Council officers in Leicestershire have started putting up warning posters after 50 canisters of nitrous oxide were found in a public park. The posters say that Inhaling nitrous oxide can be dangerous and can lead to loss of blood pressure, fainting and heart attack. Prolonged exposure to nitrous oxide may also result in bone marrow suppression and poisoning of the central nervous system. These risks are likely to be exacerbated if the exposure to the gas is combined with alcohol and other drugs.

A spokesman for Harborough District Council said: “We feel it is a sensible reaction to put up the posters to warn people about the real dangers associated with using nitrous oxide.”

Canisters and discarded balloons, used by people to breathe in the gas, have also been found at other local parks in recent weeks. Police is the area are stepping up patrols – typically in parks and open spaces – where officers believe people are gathering to use the gas.

The RCN said its members were concerned at seeing patients with injuries from taking the drug. They advise that if someone collapses after using nitrous oxide, 999 is called immediately. The person needs to be turned on their side to avoid choking and kept a watch on until an ambulance arrives. For information on any of AlphaBiolabs’ drug testing solutions, including our home drug testing kit, please call 0333 600 1300 or email us at info@alphabiolabs.com.