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Are ‘balloons’ the new drug epidemic in Nigeria?


They may look like the normal balloons you see at children’s birthday parties or those used for decoration at weddings or other celebrations, but they are far from it. AJUMA EDWINA AMEH writes on the fast-growing trend of nitrous oxide-filled balloons, popularly known as laughing gas, used by youths as another form of drug abuse fueling drug crisis in the country.

The abuse of Nitrous Oxide, widely known as laughing gas has recently been making headlines due to its growing use among Nigerian youths. It is a colourless and odourless gas sold in canisters, mostly used as anesthesic for surgical operations. It is being inhaled using balloons by young party-goers or fun-seekers to feel intoxicated or high, hence balloons have become a new fad at parties organised by youths and also at clubs.

Findings by Persecondnews revealed that Nitrous Oxide has become an “escape route” for many youths craving relaxation, calmness, quick high, detachment from reality, and euphoria. The worrisome trend which is gaining momentum among young Nigerians at an alarming pace, became increasingly common through its use in the Nigerian music videos by different popular Nigerian artistes.

Drug, and Substance Abuse in Nigeria
In Nigeria, the burden of drug abuse has been on the rise and also a public health concern. The Federal Government and the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), through some policies, have tried to stem its tide in the country but despite these efforts, there has been a consistent rise in the number of cases especially among youths, with new drugs sprouting almost on a daily basis.

A 2021 report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) in Nigeria indicates that 14.3 million of people of ages15 and 64 years are guilty of drugs and substance abuse.

The report also revealed that in Nigeria, a population of 30 to 35 million spends approximately $15,000 and $30,000 annually on psychotropic drugs and alcoholic beverages respectively.

The Dark Side of Nitrous Oxide
Analyzing the dangers of Nitrous Oxide-inflated balloons, a resident doctor and health influencer, Dr. Olusina Ajidahun, warned that prolonged exposure to this gas can damage the brain and the spinal cord.

Dr. Ajidahun, popularly known as The_Bearded_Dr_Sina on Twitter wrote: “Seems a lot of people don’t know how dangerous doing Balloons is.

“Nickname ‘Balloons’ are the colloquial name for Nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide is a gas that has both medical and industrial use. In Medicine, it is used to sedate patients during surgery so they don’t know to feel the pain. It is used for Anaesthesia.

“The Nitrous gas is usually inhaled by taking it through the Nose or mouth. The gas is able to get into the blood, which carries to the brain and other organs in the body.

“Nitrous oxide is commonly called Laughing Gas due to sense of Euphoria. Meaning it can gas the person up so much that they feel so high, happy, on top of the world. They can start to see things which are not truly there. Fake happiness.

“Here is where it gets dangerous. Prolonged exposure to this Gas can damage the Brain and spinal cord. The gas is dangerous to the cells that make up the brain and spinal cord.

“Vitamin B 12 is one of the essential nutrients we need for blood cells and brain growth gotten from food. Nitrous Oxide blocks Vit B12, so part of cells are not produced. Blood levels drop. It also can cause abnormal ringing in the ears, dizziness and fainting.

“Some other dangers are in the long run. It can cause memory loss, and can drop the blood pressure sharply. It can cause heart attacks, sudden death and even problems with reproduction.”

Also, in an exclusive chat with Persecondnews, Dr. Ajidahun noted that Nitrous Oxide is in gas form and under pressure and low temperatures.

“Many diffuse the gas into balloons. It is dangerous to take from the canisters directly, as the coldness can destroy cells. They inhale it, It goes to the lungs and from there into the bloodstream and organs.

“The abuse are stemmed on the risk of people wanting to try and experiment. The media and celebrities also glamorize it.

“Vendors also hawk it on IG, snap chat, Twitter, etc. Many people have idolized celebs and are impressionable. They want to experiment like their faves and get hung up,” he added.

Persecondnews gathered that a 640g canister of Nitrous Oxide is sold between N40,000 to N60,000 online in Nigeria.

NDLEA Swings Into Action
Following the widespread abuse, the Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), retired Brig.-Gen. Buba Marwa directed all commands and formations of the agency to begin an immediate clamp down on illegal sale and use of Nitrous Oxide.

Barely 24 hours after the directive, operatives of the anti-narcotics agency intercepted over 64,863.5 kg consignments of the gaseous substance at the Apapa seaport in Lagos and in Imo State.

A statement by the spokesman of the agency, Femi Babafemi, disclosed that following credible intelligence, the NDLEA operatives at the Apapa seaport intercepted two containers marked MSKU 7626856 and MSKU 7689448 suspected to contain cartons of Nitrous Oxide and plastic pressure release nozzles, imported from China.

A joint examination of the containers by NDLEA officers, men of the Nigeria Customs Service and other stakeholders, revealed that a total of 522 cartons of Nitrous Oxide, containing 16,366 packages weighing 64,852 kilograms were recovered along with the paraphernalia for recreational use.

According to the NDLEA spokesperson, the importer of the consignment, 30-year-old Stephen Eze and his agent, Michael Chukwuma were arrested and detained for further investigations.

In the same vein, NDLEA operatives on patrol along Owerri-Onitsha Expressway in Imo State on the July 13, intercepted three cartons containing 18 canisters of the same substance weighing 11.5 kg heading to Port Harcourt, Rivers State.

According to Babafemi, a swift follow-up operation was conducted in the stadium road area of Elekahia, Port Harcourt the same day leading to the arrest of the owner of the shipment, 24-year-old Tonye Kalio.

Meanwhile, the NDLEA Chairman has said the clampdown on illegal sale and use of Nitrous Oxide will be a continuous exercise nationwide to protect young Nigerians from the devastating effects of abusing the substance and in the overall interest of public health.

With this new and latest fad among youths, it is imperative for Nigerians to be on the alert and adopt the slogan “if you see something, say something” and help security operatives particularly the NDLEA to rid the society especially at social gatherings and parties of “balloons”, not the usual wedding balloons.

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