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Asphyxial Deaths from the Recreational Use of Nitrous Oxide

NCJ Number
Journal of Forensic Sciences Volume: 37 Issue: 4 Dated: (July 1992) Pages: 1008-1015
S A Wagner; M A Clark; D L Wesche; D J Doedens; A W Lloyd
Date Published
8 pages
Recreational nitrous oxide is usually obtained from anesthesia tanks or whipped cream machine chargers or cans, and five deaths associated with nitrous oxide use are presented.
Although nitrous oxide is often promoted as a safe substance among users seeking the euphoric effects of "laughing gas," 20 cases of death due to the recreational use of nitrous oxide have been documented. Five recent cases of death involved inhaling nitrous oxide from chargers for whipped cream dispensers, from a race car super charger tank, or from gas-filled anesthesia tanks. Nitrous oxide was measured in these cases by an equilibration method in which known volumes of air were equilibrated under standard conditions. The nitrous oxide concentration of overlying air was analyzed by gas chromatography and compared to a standard curve. Autopsy findings in the five cases resembled those seen in asphyxial deaths, that is, acute passive congestion of the lungs and other viscera, subgaleal petechiae, cardiac petechiae, and suffusion of livor in the face. Laboratory simulation confirmed that nitrous oxide displaced oxygen in closed spaces and thus probably led to asphyxia. A review of the literature, neuropharmacology, and pathophysiology of nitrous oxide is presented. 22 references and 5 figures


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