March 27, 2012 — -- There is growing concern among health professionals that Whip-Its -- small canisters filled with nitrous oxide that can be used as a recreational drug and were reportedly used by actress Demi Moore shortly before she was rushed to the hospital in January -- are making a comeback among teenagers and young adults across the country.
"What makes them really popular is they're easily accessible," said William Oswald, founder of the Summit Malibu drug treatment center. "You can get them at a head shop, you can get it out of a whipped cream bottle."
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The most recent figures show that Whip-Its have become the most popular recreational inhalant of choice, with over 12 million users in the U.S. who have tried it at least once, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Inhaling the compressed gas, either from the Whip-It chargers, a whipped cream canister, or a nitrous tank, is purported to result in a fleeting high, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
And while some states have passed laws attempting to stop the inhalation of nitrous, experts say the use of Whip-Its is mostly ignored by authorities and left unregulated.
"It's non-detectable," said Oswald. "So when they're testing people, it doesn't show."
An ABC News investigation airing tonight on "Nightline" found that multiple online retailers allowed large purchases of the Whip-Its, with no questions asked about age or what they would be used for. A tobacco shop selling the canisters alongside cigars and rolling papers insisted they were cooking supplies, but then immediately removed all boxes from the shelves when confronted with ABC News cameras.
But while a growing collection of user videos on YouTube portray doing Whip-Its, or "Noz" as it's sometimes called, as a harmless, laughter-inducing activity, it can be deadly.
Illinois college student Benjamin Collen, 19, died from asphyxiation from nitrous oxide. He was found dead in a fraternity house surround by Whip-Its chargers in 2008.
Melyssa Gastelum was an 18 year-old aspiring fashion model and National Honors Society student when she went to an all-ages party in Phoenix last May where she inhaled Whip-Its and ingesting a small amount of ecstasy. She died later at the hospital and the medical examiner ruled that nitrous oxide was a contributing factor in her death.
"I wish I could wake up from this nightmare," said her mother, Christy Gastelum. "I ask myself, 'Why do bad things happen to good people? Why?'"
Experts told ABC News it's not clear why sniffing death occurs in some people and not others, which adds to the hidden danger of using inhalants such as Whip-Its.
Dr. Westley Clark, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA, said inhaling nitrous oxide, or huffing as it's sometimes called, can cut off oxygen to the brain and result in severe effects on the body's cardiovascular system.
"What you're concerned about is heart effects, effects on their peripheral nervous system, effects on their organ system," said Clark.
Debbie Goldman knows that all too well. She said she started using Whip-Its in college and through her years at one of the country's leading law firms, going through 10 boxes of the tiny chargers every night, 24 to a box.
"My whole body would go numb, and I would just fall asleep," Goldman said. "My neurologist told me I was very lucky that I didn't die from it or have brain damage."