Will Nangs Kill You?

The media thinks they're deadly, your drug buddy thinks they're harmless. What's the truth?

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Mar 1 2017, 4:12am

Nangs are a potent, easily accessible high. And they're dirt cheap—a balloon will set you back around $0.50, assuming you get the canisters delivered to your door. So it's no surprise nangs are becoming only more popular, something the 2015 Drug Trends Report made clear. In 2011, 21 percent of Australians had sucked on a nang balloon in the previous six months. Four years later, that number was up to 26 percent. And while most of us consider nangs a harmless, midnight top-up, the majority of Australia's media is convinced the gas is deadly, without much in the way of evidence. So we asked an expert for the truth, and did some digging.

What Are Nangs?

Nangs (aka nossies, whippets, or—according to the Daily Mailhippy crack) contain nitrous oxide: a colourless, odourless gas, which renders a dissociative effect on the human brain. As you may know, inhaling nitrous oxide feels a bit like giggling in space. The gas itself was discovered in the laboratories of English chemist Joseph Priestley in 1772, but it was not until 1799 that Humphry Davy, another English chemist, popularised the gas as a recreational drug. Humphry developed a liking for the dizzy hallucinations the gas wrought on his brain, and held what would eventually be called "laughing gas parties." As a recreational drug laughing gas took off in upper-class England, while it took the medical profession a few more years to catch on. The first recorded surgery conducted under laughing gas was in 1844.

Images by Ashley Goodall

Can Nangs Kill You?

Professor Gordian Fulde is a founding father of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine and the Director of Emergency Medicine at Sydney's St Vincent's Hospital. According to him "they're not something I would jump up and down and say, 'It's going to kill you.'"

"The only way nangs really kill you is if they deprive the body of oxygen," Gordian explains. "Some people do stuff like put their head in bags and all sorts of shenanigans that actually exclude oxygen. And that's where the damage happens." However in his 34 years at St. Vincent's emergency room, Gordian has never treated a patient suffering only nang-related injuries, let alone a nang-related death.

What Are the Long Term Effects of Use?

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation suggests that "prolonged exposure" to the gas may result in memory loss, ringing or buzzing in the ears, incontinence, numbness, spasms, psychosis, depression, potential birth defects and disruption to the reproductive systems. It is also possible, they note, that inhaling the cold gas can freeze your nose, lips and throat. This is simply because nitrous oxide is stored as a liquid under pressure, meaning it's well below freezing temperature.

Finally, there's one other risk with nangs. "One of the very, very rare complications you can get is degeneration of your spinal cord," explains Gordian. "This is related to a vitamin B-12 absorption deficiency. If you really use a lot of it and chronically, your spine and your motor function will degenerate and you could get something similar to MS or motor neuron disease."

"But I've virtually never seen a case of that just because of nangs. It's always in a combination with other things." To end up in the ER from inhaling alone, as Gordian says, "You would really have to hammer the old nangs."

So Are Nangs Dangerous After All?

The real problem is that nangs are nearly always taken in conjunction with something else. No one who does nangs is otherwise completely sober. As Gordian explains, "We are the leaders of the world in amphetamines, we are the leaders in the world—per population—in ecstasy consumption, and we are third in the world for crystal meth." Therefore it's almost a given that dangerous behaviours associated with other drugs are only exacerbated by nangs.

This is a trend that's only growing as nangs become more popular. As Gordian notes, "Inhalational agents are easy to buy, legal to buy and are obviously going to be used by younger kids for right of passage, etc." The quick-fix nature of the drug is less important than its accessibility, which is really the contributing factor. "Nangs is very much coming up, because it's so easy and so readily available," he says. "But in five years, it will be something different."

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