Gas Abuse

The BCGA and its members have campaigned for some years to raise awareness about the danger of abusing and misusing gases.

Gases provide an invaluable resource in many sectors but need to be handled safely.  Gas suppliers within the BCGA take great care to advise customers on the safe and appropriate use of their products, to ensure users are appropriately informed.  In addition, BCGA publications provide a free-of-charge range of Health and Safety and industry best practice information.

Gases have a variety of properties, some of which may be hazardous in particular circumstances. Individual gases may be inert, flammable, oxidising, toxic or corrosive.  They can be supplied in solid, liquid or gaseous form, some being extremely cold, whilst most are stored under (high) pressure in their containers.

Misusing gases is dangerous and can be lethal.  Misuse includes the inhalation of non-prescription gases.  Other forms of misuse include the uncontrolled or inappropriate release of gases from their container, or incorrect use, which can lead to damaging and lethally dangerous situations.  Misuse has led to many incidents, including deaths.

The inhalation of any gas, other than air and oxygen, can cause death by asphyxiation and every breath can cause unconsciousness – or worse.  Gases should never be inhaled unless under the supervision of a qualified medical practitioner or a trained professional (for example, specific diving activities, aviation), etc.

BCGA and its members can provide advice on gas safety and specific applications on request.  Users must understand the properties and hazards of gases they are intending to use, must ensure they are competent and must use appropriate equipment.

If you are affected by the misuse of gases, or any other substances, seek advice and treatment from your GP or other qualified medical practitioners.  The NHS provide advice or Talk to Frank.

Nitrous oxide abuse

Recreational inhalation abuse of nitrous oxide occurs in the UK.  It can cause serious damage to the health and livelihood of the user.  

Nitrous oxide is classified as a Class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.  Possession and sales for recreational use is a criminal offence.

The Home Office provide advice on the legislation here.

BCGA provide further information in BCGA Leaflet 19 Abuse of nitrous oxide.  A safety poster is available to download from our campaign resources section.


In the UK, 12 % of substance-related deaths mention nitrogen or nitrous oxide on the death certificate.  Surveys show it is the third most commonly abused substance among 16 to 59 year olds in England and Wales with over a quarter million people claiming to have used it in 2022.

Unfortunately, there are many risks of abusing the substance, including:

  • immediate death through hypoxia, asphyxiation, shock, for example causing cardiac arrest (mostly triggered by a shortage of oxygen);
  • the dangers to which abusers are exposed whilst in a compromised state (equivalent to being drunk or intoxicated).  These include staggering into traffic, falling off balconies, down stairs, into swimming pools and watercourses;
  • serious damage to the central nervous system, caused by repeated and long-term abuse.  This can lead to paralysis and/or permanent loss of feeling and motor control in the limbs;
  • severe face or internal injury and cold burns from direct inhalation (from cylinders, canisters, etc.);
  • releasing an environmentally damaging substance.  Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas and needs to be controlled responsibly;
  • risks due to littering with discarded containers, for example, streets, parks, university campuses, school grounds, etc.  These risks are then presented to animals, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists;
  • it is highly addictive, leading to further crime to sustain the addiction.  This also causes misery for the abuser’s friends and family, just like any abused substance.

The Environment Agency provide guidance on ‘Storing and depressurising nominally empty nitrous oxide canisters’ within Regulatory Position Statement 289.

Legitimate uses

There are legitimate and important uses of nitrous oxide, which are not affected by it being classified as a Class C drug. These include:

  • Use as a medical gas (e.g. in hospitals, clinics, vets, dental practice and in midwifery).  In all these areas, the gas is supplied as a licensed medicine, controlled by medical professionals and administered under qualified medical supervision.
  • Use in professional culinary processes, one well known example is the use of nitrous oxide to froth and propel synthetic cream, however there are also many other uses. Alternatively, nitrous oxide used in this way is also available on the consumer market, such as in pre-mixed ‘squirty cream’ in cans, which are easily accessible to consumers.
  • Use by motor sport professionals to enhance the power delivery of internal combustion engines, often on specialist race engines.
  • Legitimate research, for the above.

Helium (He) (and its variant Balloon Gas)

Helium is a very light and inert non-toxic gas, which gives those foolish or ill-advised enough to inhale it a temporary high pitched or squeaky voice effect.

Many falsely believe this to be harmless, yet helium displaces oxygen and carbon dioxide from within the lungs.  One breath can be fatal!

A safety poster is available to download from our campaign resources section.

Food folly – Use of cold substances

Attempts to use cryogenic liquids in food and drink became briefly fashionable some years ago.

People who have attempted to use or ‘cook’ with liquid nitrogen while inadequately equipped and non-competent have caused serious injuries to themselves and others. Carbon dioxide pellets in drinks have caused similar problems.

Cryo-cookery can:

  • cause burns because of the extreme cold, for example to faces, mouths, internal organs and any contacted soft tissue, through ingestion, handling and/or splashing;
  • lead to explosions arising from volume changes if the substance is stored inappropriately or for too long, such as in an inadequately pressure-relieved vacuum insulated flask (such as a common hot-drinks flask); and
  • result in asphyxiation caused by the displacement of oxygen creating a non-respirable atmosphere.

Only suitably equipped facilities and appropriately competent personnel should have access to cryogenic liquids. Specialist and suitably rated protective equipment will be required, not generally available outside an industrial environment.


Psychoactive Substances Act 2016

BCGA was instrumental in working with Government to include Nitrous Oxide in the provisions of the Psychoactive Substances Act. This was introduced primarily to address the huge problem which was the open sale of then ‘Legal Highs’ such as Spice, Mamba, Purple Bombs, etc.

Prior to the Psychoactive Substances Act, it was commonplace to see balloons of Nitrous Oxide on sale at festivals, in clubs and pubs and in city centres – the balloons filled on site either from large cylinders (often stolen), or using mini canisters, in conjunction with otherwise empty cream dispense jugs.

BCGA also helped the NHS write extensive guidance on medical gas cylinder security. Large Nitrous Oxide cylinders are still targeted to be stolen from hospitals and elsewhere, and often reappear at illegal raves. The Police are aware of this and BCGA members often cooperate with intelligence and assist where possible.

The Psychoactive Substances Act outlawed the knowing or reckless supply of Nitrous Oxide for inhalation and has also had good effect in curbing the above Nitrous Oxide trade. If anyone is selling crackers or balloons alongside mini canisters, it is clear that they know the gas will be inhaled, because there is no other use for the cracker device and therefore sellers should be prosecuted under the Psychoactive Substances Act.


Latest Campaign Resources

Please see below for links to the latest campaign resources:



L19 Abuse of nitrous oxide. 2020

01/12/2020 Leaflets L19

Provides information on nitrous oxide and highlights the dangers from its abuse. It supports the BCGA campaign encouraging a ban on consumer sales.

Go To Download Page

GN33 The safe use of gases for leisure and catering. 2021

04/03/2021 Guidance Notes GN33

The use of gases is common in the leisure and catering industries. However, gases are hazardous and the user of the gases has a duty of care to all those who may be affected by their activities and they have to take all necessary safety measures to control all risks.

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