HOW MANY times have you walked past youngsters on the street and seen them sharing round those small, silver cannisters of nitrous oxide? Or gone out in the morning and tutted over a pile of empty cannisters left in the street? It’s litter – but a bit of “laughing gas” is harmless, isn’t it?
No. Nitrous oxide is not harmless – and that is the message that Tower Hamlets Council and Queen Mary, University of London, are explaining to young people in the borough. The two institutions are pioneering a new approach, based on educating young people about the drug, to reducing the risks of nitrous oxide misuse.
The message at the heart of the campaign – “N2O Know the Risks” – is simple: “Nitrous oxide (NOX/N2O) can damage your spinal cord and cause serious, permanent disability.” This is because nitrous oxide causes vitamin B12 to stop working in the body – leading to nerve damage, up to and including paralysis.
The Royal London Hospital sees a case of nitrous oxide related nerve damage every nine days on average. Recent research showed that young, Asian males are the largest group affected, although users can be from any background.
Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers (THEOs) are currently able to issue fines to young people seen using nitrous oxide – but that strategy does not see to be an effective deterrent, hence the new emphasis on education. The project is offering educative workshops to schools and youth and community groups – hoping that the new Tower Hamlets Youth Service structure, with its emphasis on local youth centres, can boost the reach of the message.
THEOs will be trained about the risks of using the drug, so they can talk to young people on the streets. They will also be able to offer the same education sessions to young people who are seen using the drug, as an alternative to issuing fines.
The workshops, which are being run with help from the Osmani Trust, have already begun, and those involved have been positive about the impact they have had. One person said, “I now know the risks of nitrous oxide. I used to think it was completely harmless and if you use it it’s completely fine and does only minor stuff. Now I’m definitely not using it. Instead of telling people off they just informed us of risks.”
The local NHS is also taking part in the proect – aiming to improve treatment in hospitals for those with symptoms and improving research and clinical understanding.
Tower Hamlets Executive Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, who authorised this innovative programme, said:
“Nitrous oxide use affects many of our residents, due to the health harms of taking it, the anti-social behaviour associated with it, and the littering of the cannisters and cylinders, which is why we are making tackling it a priority.
“These prevention workshops and awareness sessions help us to educate people about the dangers of NOX, which is an important part of efforts to stop its use. However, we will take enforcement action against those who continue to use it in our borough, or those selling it.”
Cllr Abu Talha Chowdhury, Cabinet Member for Safer Communities, said:
“I have attended one of the workshops and saw first-hand how they are already having a positive impact on the young people in our borough. We are confident that this combined approach of education and enforcement will drive down NOX usage in our borough.”
Professor Alastair Noyce, Centre for Preventive Neurology at Queen Mary University of London, and Consultant Neurologist at Barts Health NHS Trust, said:
“Over the last few years, I’ve seen a couple of hundred patients who have been using nitrous oxide and have come to harm. The most common thing that happens is that they damage their spinal cord. They have difficulty walking, problems feeling their arms and legs, and sometimes problems going to the toilet and sexual dysfunction.
“If you are using nitrous oxide and you experience any of these symptoms, it’s very important that you stop using nitrous oxide immediately and come to hospital to be assessed and start treatment at the earliest possible time.”
Queen Mary University of London medical student Devan Mair, who constructed and initially delivered the workshops with the support of Professor Noyce, said:
“We want to empower people with the knowledge of the risks of nitrous oxide given the devastating impact we’ve seen it have on people’s lives first-hand. It’s not a case of lecturing anyone, but rather changing the fact that so many people don’t know that those balloons can potentially cause severe spinal and nerve damage, even leading to paralysis.”
MPS Superintendent Jai Singh, Neighbourhoods Tower Hamlets, said:
“While we wait on the legislative reforms to be outlined by the government following the reclassification of nitrous oxide as a Class C drug, I welcome this public health approach in tackling nitrous oxide misuse. It is through raising awareness and educating users on the risks that we can begin safeguarding. Enforcement alone cannot tackle this issue.”