How Safe is Laughing Gas?: Balloons on Bui Vien

Blogs - Vietnam: April 4, 2017

An Easy High

With a constant influx of young travellers eager for adventure and excitement, Bui Vien is notorious for its debauched, chaotic and often messy nights. Every night of the week the strip of bars along Bui Vien and neighbouring roads De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao, Cong Quynh and Do Quan Dao transform into a swamp of drunken tourists, grizzled expats and countless locals all revelling in the mayhem of Saigon’s strangest and most libertine hot spot.

Alongside the cheap beer vendors and dealers peddling marijuana and hard drugs is another, conceivably safer option for inebriation. All along Bui Vien, bar owners are armed with whipped cream canisters. They use these to blow up balloons full of nitrous oxide, more commonly known as laughing gas and often used as anaesthetic, for their tipsy customers. Some establishments even have their own medical-grade tanks of the gas, providing gargantuan doses for a buck or two.

Funky balls Bui Vien

The party animals of Bui Vien agree – everyone we spoke to said they consider the gas benign, harmless, fun and temporary. And on the face of it, they’re right: the effects are short-lived. It’s just a minute or two of hallucinatory sedation and then... back to normal. But are there really no negative health effects of laughing gas?

As Safe as it Seems?

With its medical reputation, nitrous oxide is not stymied by the same stigma as any of the ‘real’ drugs available on Bui Vien. However, the truth is actually quite different: evidence shows that habitual use of laughing gas causes very real mental and physical health problems for many people.

Dr. Robert J. Hedaya, author for Psychology Today, was shocked by the effects of laughing gas on the psychology of users. He writes, “I was wandering around the internet last night, looking for scholarly articles on something called ‘methylation pathways', when I came across a very disturbing article on the potentially quite toxic interaction between nitrous oxide (N2O) and certain states of B12 deficiency.”

He continues: “[…] The methylation pathway I refer to above is a fundamental biochemical pathway occurring billions of times per second in the human body. It's like the dollar bill of our economy – it keeps things moving. Methylation plays a key role in the building up and breaking down of molecules.”

So, laughing gas can impact on B12 activity if the user is deficient in this vitamin. Dr. Hedaya goes on to elaborate on these complications. Toying with these chemicals can ultimately affect the brain processes that make us happy, sane, healthy and even youthful.

When told about the risks, most users were shocked. No one we spoke to had been warned about the effects of nitrous oxide; many swore never to touch it again and almost all were visibly angry that a drug that had been marketed as harmless had the capability to permanently affect their bodies and minds.

The reality is, even light use of laughing gas can cause damage in subtle but severe ways.

Dr. Nam Nguyen Canh of Victoria Healthcare told us, “Nitrous oxide inactivates cobalamin (vitamin B12). Its use in anesthesia or its abuse as an inhalant may precipitate rapid hematologic and neuropsychiatric deterioration in vitamin B12-deficient subjects.

“Harmful effects of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) often occur from either high-level short-term or low-level long-term exposures.”

And perhaps most frightening: Dr. Nam continues, “Deficiency in vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin) leads to the degeneration of the dorsal and lateral white matter of the spinal cord, producing a slowly progressive weakness, sensory ataxia, and paraesthesia, and ultimately spasticity, paraplegia, and incontinence.

“Prolonged use may produce neurologic dysfunction; patients with vitamin B12 deficiency (pernicious anemia) and those with other nutritional deficiencies (alcoholics) are at an increased risk.”

Funky balls

Worth the Risk?

Taking part in the giant canisters of medical-grade nitrous oxide may seem like an exciting diversion, but the reality is far more risky. We spoke to bar owners who chose to keep their anonymity. They have stated that they’ve seen regular users act violently and experience noticeable personality shifts.

Anecdotally, they told us that they’ve seen even casual users have sometimes experienced anxiety, depression and hypertension.

Such behaviour is consistent with the psychological damage caused by N2O abuse. Irrational and aggressive behaviour are just some of the possible symptoms that can result from a disruption to methylation effectiveness.

Laughing gas is legal in Saigon. It is easily available and there are entire bars devoted to the inhalation of N2O. It is seen as acceptable, safe and fun. The misconception of its safety is a myth that only education can defeat.

Despite the risks, the selling continues unabated. Our advice is simple: Steer clear.

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