Tower Hamlets and Queen Mary unite to reduce the risks of nitrous oxide misuse

"Nitrous oxide (NOX/N2O) can damage your spinal cord and cause serious, permanent disability” - that is the message to young people in Tower Hamlets as part of a programme to highlight the consequences of using the drug.

‘N2O Know the Risks’ is a new programme run by Tower Hamlets Council and Queen Mary University which aims to educate people about the dangers of using nitrous oxide, including causing the vitamin B12 to stop working, resulting in paralysis and nerve damage.

The project includes an offer of harm intervention workshops to nitrous oxide users as an alternative to a fine issued by enforcement officers.

Preventive workshops will be delivered on the risks of nitrous oxide to young people in schools, youth groups and community settings.

At the Royal London Hospital, there is a case of nitrous oxide related nerve damage every nine days, and it is an emerging public health issue.

Recent research showed that young, Asian males are the largest group affected, although users can be from all backgrounds.

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.”

The ‘N2O Know the Risks’ programme will also include training for the Tower Hamlets Enforcement Officers to deliver on-street advice about the risks of nitrous oxide to users, and aims to improve treatment in hospitals for those with symptoms and improving research and clinical understanding.

As part of the project, a junior doctor will lead on the clinical aspects of the project, and there is a partnership with Osmani Trust as delivery partner for workshops.

Community organisations and the police will also be involved in spreading the dangers of NOX.

Workshops have already taken place, 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.”

Tower Hamlets Executive Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, 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.”

Queen Mary University of London medical student Devan Mair, who constructed and initially delivered the workshops with the support of Professor Noyce and are now being upscaled by Tower Hamlets, 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.”

Posted on Thursday 28th September 2023