Time for "How Scared Should I Be?" the column that quantifies the scariness of everything under the sun, and teaches you how to allocate that most precious of natural resources: your fear.
I know what you're thinking: Is there a conceivable universe where whippits—inhalations of nitrous oxide gas, typically sucked out of a whipped-cream can—are scary? Last week, when someone I know asked if it was a good idea to buy a huge box of whipped-cream chargers at a bargain basement price, all I could give him was a hunch: It seemed like it might not be a good idea to buy that many. I wasn't sure why.
Here's what you already know: Nitrous oxide gas makes cream into whipped cream, makes Vin Diesel's car go faster, and makes dental work slightly less awful. And if you take a lungful of it for fun, you'll be like "whoooooo..." for about the time it takes to breathe in and out. That's the whole thing. It's not exactly heroin. Right?
"You can die using it in some circumstances," said Matthew Howard, social worker and editor of the Journal of Addictive Diseases at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Fortunately, he added, "Most people are engaged in intermittent episodic use. That's not nearly as problematic."
To find out more about what kind of drug nitrous oxide is, I spoke to Kate Leslie, head of anesthesia research at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. She said it "puts people to sleep, takes away pain, and it has euphoric effects." She called the amount in a normal whipped-cream charger—three or four lungfuls—"a small-ish dose," but she also said it's "about the same as we've used to put someone to sleep."
Here's a breakdown of how whippits can go wrong. And yes, they can go very wrong if you work hard enough at it.
You Can Fall Down or Puke
When it comes to casual use of nitrous oxide, one of the biggest dangers is probably that you'll "become unconscious, collapse and hit your head, or break your arm or fall off something," Leslie said. If you do pass out, and someone calls 911, Leslie recommended that when the paramedics inevitably ask why you went unconscious, you just tell them "whippits" instead of going, "Maybe I was hungry!" You might end up being subjected to a lot of unnecessary tests if you lie.
The legal consequences of confessing aren't exactly dire. Whippits aren't legal, but prosecutions are very tricky, and the paramedics can help you. "They'll put you on oxygen," she said. And if you're short on vitamins from breathing too much nitrous oxide (more on that below), you can be "topped up" and on the road to recovery in no time.
Another potential concern for casual users, Leslie said, is that "nitrous oxide causes vomiting." (While this is something she and others believe, lab experiments haven't really proven it conclusively.) Still, if you've ever done whippits, you know they can make you feel nauseous, so a little caution in this area is wise. "You breathe in your vomit, and you choke to death. That's the way a lot of people die of drug overdose," Leslie said. So just like when you're super drunk, it's a good idea not to lie flat on your back if you've just been doing whippits.
You Can Run Low on Oxygen
Nitrous oxide isn't oxygen, which is something you need in order to, y'know, stay alive. It's definitely a bad sign if your lips turn blue, but you probably won't die from oxygen deprivation by sucking on a whipped-cream can. It's worth noting, though, that Demi Moore ended up in hospital in 2012 after allegedly sucking on industrial grade whipped-cream chargers.
From here, our definition of "whippits" starts to get expansive. Imagine for a moment, you love whippits so much, you make the decision to toss the whipped-cream cans altogether, and start buying your gas in larger quantities. "The fatal cases usually involve wearing a mask," Howard told me. Generally, the way people die, he said, is that they "kinda knew what they were doing and put on some kind of mask.
"When people pass out, they'll drop the balloon or whatever and start breathing air," Howard said. "If you've got a gas mask on, you won't." This is doubly true if you do what Andrew McCoy of Blacksburg, Virginia, did and put a bag on your head in order to get more nitrous oxide into your lungs. McCoy asphyxiated and died.
So basically, stick to whipped-cream cans and balloons, and open a window.
Having It Around at Work Can Spell Trouble
Whippits are usually something people do when a pool party starts getting weird, not a serious, sit-around-and-do-it-all-day drug. But according to Howard, there are people who can find themselves tempted to do whippits all day every day: those who work with big tanks of nitrous oxide and are prone to boredom. Medical side effects can set in, he said, from "the kind of use you see among dentists, dental hygienists, and people who work in the food service industry."
What can happen to these folks is similar to what happened to patients in early intensive-care units: "Patients developed a condition called Subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord," Leslie told me. This comes from a vitamin deficiency, and if you get an injection of vitamin B12 soon enough, it can go away. Otherwise, you can wind up with permanently stiff limbs, grogginess, weakness, and tingly hands.
Those Might Not Be Whippits
In 2012, a kid in north London inhaled some kind of gas from a balloon, mistakenly thinking it was nitrous oxide, and then died of a heart attack. An investigation by the Daily Mail revealed that what he'd actually inhaled was, horribly, some kind of comedy prop called a "smelly balloon" meant to stink up a room when popped. It contained butane, isobutane and pentane, all of which are toxic.
And in the course of researching this topic, I noticed that it was common to conflate whippits with the use of other inhalants, including volatile solvents or spray duster. "Those are really, super toxic," Howard told me when we briefly spoke on the subject. They deserve their own entry in this column, frankly.
It's was hard to take this topic seriously because on one hand, if you're sucking nitrous out of a can every once in a while, you'll be fine. On the other hand, this evil gas of death somehow claimed 17 lives in the UK between 2006 and 2012. Conditions associated with long-term use of nitrous oxide like the aforementioned subacute combined degeneration of the spinal cord, as well as myeloneuropathy legitimately scary, but they're also very unusual.
For God's sake just do it around people. Don't wear a mask. And just generally take it easy with that stuff.
Final Verdict: How Scared Should I Be of Whippits?
2/5: Taking Normal Precautions
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