Today, however, nitrous oxide is largely used by teenagers and young adults who inhale it from balloons they either fill from large tanks or from pressurized cans and cylinders. Law enforcement agencies, such as the Anaheim, Calif., Police Department, have been warning parents of increasing abuse, including two cases of suicide linked to the gas in September 2010. Mental health professionals worry about its effects on youngsters' developing brains, and indications that it can be a gateway to other drugs for them. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has sought to reduce its availability by asking wholesale distributors to limit sales to legitimate users and asking retail sellers to monitor sales of canned whipped cream and whipped cream chargers, the small cylinders of nitrous oxide used in whipped cream dispensers.
Horton said that nitrous oxide's potential long-term effects include interference with vitamin B-12, which can lead to a type of anemia, as well as damage to many parts of the nervous system.
"You can hypothesize that if someone was using this chronically, and they kept doing it, they could end up with some permanent nerve damage that might affect them all the way up to their ability to think," he said.
The jury remains out about whether nitrous oxide is truly addictive. "Those who inhale the Gas once are always anxious to inhale it the second time," reads a line in an 1845 handbill promoting a "Grand Exhibition" of laughing gas effects.
Anecdotal reports indicate people "develop dependence and behavioral changes that are suggestive of addiction," Horton said.