Nitrous oxide


Nitrous oxide, together with oxygen, is used as an anesthesia for medical purposes.


What are laughing gas / nitrous oxide canisters?

Nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is used in the catering industry as an agent for making whipped cream (hence the name ‘cream puff charger’). However, nitrous oxide is also used amongst young people as a recreational drug, a means of obtaining a legal high.

Cream puff chargers are cheap and easy to buy in store and online. They are known in youth culture by a number of different names: whippit, noz, nos, nang, nossy, hippy crack or Johnson.

The user commonly pierces the foil on the canister and empties the gas into a balloon before inhaling. The effect is a 30 second 'high', which will often be repeated a number of times. Inhaling nitrous oxide can be dangerous.

The drug is very popular with teenagers and young adults; it is especially popular amongst clubbers and those attending music festivals. Nitrous oxide canisters are cheap and easy to obtain.

Nitrous oxide is the second most commonly used drug among 16- to 24-year-olds in England, after cannabis. Half a million people are known to have used it in the last year, which accounts for one in 11 of that age group. Males are more likely to use it than females.


The dangers

Nitrous oxide, together with oxygen, is used as an anesthesia for medical purposes. However, inhaling nitrous oxide for recreational purposes can lead to a range of both short term and long term health issues, including nausea, dizziness, unconsciousness, a dangerously increased heart rate, swelling on the brain, nerve damage and anaemia; it can also lead to psychological problems. The delivery method poses a danger because the gas is under such high pressure that inhalation may cause damage to the throat and lungs. On average nitrous oxide inhalation causes five fatalities a year.

At the recent Royal College of Nursing’s annual conference, held in May 2019, nurses demanded action to highlight the drug’s dangers. They say that there is a significant lack of understanding concerning the impact of nitrous oxide on users. 

The dangers were also highlighted in a British Medical Journal article published in 2018 entitled “Laughter is not always the best medicine”. A&E doctors say that they are seeing an increasing number of people in need of medical help after using nitrous oxide.

The sale of nitrous oxide for recreational use was outlawed in 2016. However nitrous oxide canisters remain readily available as they are used in the catering industry.


Canisters into art

Whilst walking around my local neighbourhood I would regularly see steel canisters lying in the gutter or littering the parks, without knowing what they were used for. I have subsequently learned about the use of nitrous oxide as a recreational drug.


A team of 'canister pickers' (both friends and street cleaners) supplied me with empty canisters. I have incorporated more than 20,000 canisters in my art installations, which means that more than half a ton of steel has been saved from landfill.