Volunteers from Keep Grangetown Tidy. Credit: Keep Grangetown Tidy.

Nitrous Oxide: Nearly 7,000 large canisters collected by Cardiff volunteers this year

They’ve been seeing far more of the large blue bottles, which are 75 times bigger than the regular size 

VOLUNTEERS from Cardiff Rivers Group have collected about 7,000 large nitrous oxide canisters in the last year 一 just over four tonnes of laughing gas. 

Possession of nitrous oxide, also known as NOS, was made illegal in November as a government response to anti-social behaviour and fears for the health of those who inhale it.

“It started off being unusual, the big nitrous oxide canisters, and now it’s commonplace, it has gone from the little silver bullets, that we used to find thousands of, which we’ve [now] had very few of,” said Dave King MBE, founder of environmental clean-up group, Cardiff Rivers Group. 

Smartwhip and Creme Deluxe are the most common brands of NOS canister and both hold 615 grams of the gas — 75 times the amount in the regular eight-gram size. 

Large NOS canisters from the November Keep Grangetown Tidy litter-pick. Credit: Katherine Gray.

“We’re finding them in car parks, business parks, out of the way areas, people driving there and using it, so it’s that 18 to 30-year-old and how you target them to actually do something different, I don’t know,” said Mr King. 

Most of these canisters have been found in Cardiff, with some being brought over from Newport. 

Her whole body literally just flopped to the floor, I can’t really remember how long she was out for, maybe five to 10 seconds.” 

– Lucy Wright, on her experience with NOS

The canisters are either collected by Cardiff Rivers Group or given by other volunteers. The group then ensures that they are empty, before giving them to European Metal Recycling, which pays to use them as scrap metal. 

Canisters collected by Cardiff Rivers Group from St Mellons in November. Credit: Cardiff Rivers Group.

NOS is commonly used in the party and festival scene and is most popular with 16 to 24-year-olds. Its main legitimate uses are for pain relief and in the catering industry.

Lucy Wright, 25, not her real name, was using NOS at a friend’s house party when she was 14. 

“I did a double balloon [two of the eight-gram canisters at once] which just makes you spin out and you can’t really talk.  

“But [my friend] did three and her whole body literally just flopped to the floor, I can’t really remember how long she was out for, maybe like five to 10 seconds. 

“It also literally makes your lips go blue which says something in itself,” she said. 

As it’s now a Class C substance, people possessing NOS for fun could face a prison sentence of up to two years and an unlimited fine. 

The majority of the people who we support, who are in more of a chronic state, it’s often related to those large canisters.” 

– Daniel Gibbons, training officer at Re-Solv

Daniel Gibbons, who is a training officer for Re-Solv, a charity which works to educate people about the risks of inhaling NOS and of using other dangerous substances, told The Cardiffian: “The majority of the people who we support, who are in more of a chronic state, it’s often related to those large canisters. 

“It’s like measuring a shot of vodka out and making a vodka and Coke for one to two units, or free pouring [until] you think you’ve had enough.”  

The regular eight-gram NOS canisters. Credit: ProMo Cymru CC BY 2.0.

The larger NOS canisters are now becoming the most popular way to use laughing gas illegally. 

“As far as we’re aware the whipped cream siphons you get in a coffee shop are typically created to take the small canisters. The large canisters, I can’t say categorically, I’ve got no evidence to back that up, but I don’t think they have a purpose other than recreational use,” said Mr Gibbons. 

NOS canisters also pose a health and safety risk, as they can’t be put in normal household bins. Last year, a nitrous oxide canister exploded in a bin lorry in the Bradford area, which the council said, “could have had serious consequences for the crew and vehicle”.

On its website Rainbow Commerce, which manufactures both Smartwhip and Creme Deluxe said: “You can easily connect the Smartwhip set to any cream dispenser on the market and have full pressure and portion control.” 

What are the health risks? 

The health effects of using nitrous oxide can be serious, especially when it is used in large quantities. 

“People take a balloon, they feel lightheaded, they feel dizzy, they have the potential to fall over and hurt themselves, people do things they wouldn’t normally do because it reduces inhibitions. 

“Beyond that you might start to get people use it in large quantities, repetitiously and they might start to experience neuropathy, so down the line you might start to get an interference in your central nervous system which is problematic,” said Mr Gibbons. 

The more serious damage NOS mis-use can cause involve mobility issues, temporary paralysis, and urinary incontinence. 

However, Mr Gibbons believes that it is important to be realistic about the dangers of using NOS. 

“Some people might use sporadically or on one occasion and have no side effects really to speak of and have a healthy life, other people might use excessively, and they could run into problems and really the emphasis there is looking for those signs,” he told The Cardiffian

The signs of nerve damage can include itchiness, numbness, tingling or even pain but they can often be easy to address with a doctor’s help. 

Statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that deaths involving NOS have been rising during the 21st Century, with a peak of 20 deaths recorded in 2019.  

Although data for the last couple of years hasn’t yet been released, Re-Solv noticed an increase in the use of NOS around the time of the Covid-19 lockdowns. 

“Young people might not be interested in smoking or taking a tablet or sniffing a line because that seems quite hardcore, but they may be open to inhaling a gas from a balloon that lasts a minute or so,” said Mr Gibbons. 

Who can buy NOS? 

Regulations on selling NOS are complicated, as it’s still legal to use in many industries like catering and medicine.   

Although a licence is needed to buy NOS for medical reasons, many other companies still sell laughing gas which you don’t need a licence to purchase. 

Turning a blind eye will be committing an offence.” 

– The Home Office

A spokesperson for The Home Office said on the government website: “There is also a responsibility on legitimate producers and suppliers of nitrous oxide to not be reckless as to whether someone is buying their product to mis-use, with no legitimate reason. Turning a blind eye will be committing an offence. 

“There is no expectation for a retailer to go above and beyond what is reasonable.” 

  • South Wales Police ask that if you believe someone might be consuming NOS illegally to report it to them. You can do this online or by calling 101. 
  • Anyone struggling with substance abuse can find information on the Re-Solv website.