Nitrous Oxide

Nitrous oxide buy

Last week’s post questioning why nitrous oxide isn’t more widely available to women in labor generated a lot of discussion, so we’ve decided to dedicate today’s post to exploring the issue further.

One commenter posted a response from her anesthesiologist friend, who discussed his concerns about the safety of nitrous oxide for both the laboring woman and other people in the room exposed to the gas. After reading the anesthesiologist’s concerns, Judith Rooks, a nurse-midwife, epidemiologist, and Our Bodies, Ourselves contributor, felt compelled to respond. She sent us a long, detailed email breaking down his concerns one by one, and addressing what she believes is misinformation about what is known about nitrous oxide and the risks of epidurals. We’ve decided to post the entire email here (with permission). The original comments are posted in bold, with Judith’s response immediately following.

“Nitrous oxide in trace amounts is considered a biological hazard. It must be scavenged, which is difficult to impossible for someone who has just been taught to self-administer while in labor.”

Yes, nitrous oxide (N2O) is a biological hazard, but not all biological hazards are equal. Nitrous oxide is produced by trees, among other sources, so some of it is a natural part of our environment. I mention this just so that no one thinks it is like Sarin, e.g., which is a very deadly gas even in minute quantities. N2O has been used as a component of anesthesia for more than a hundred years, and as an analgesic for women during labor for nearly a hundred years. It is the most widely used labor analgesic in the UK, Sweden, Finland, and many other countries. It is also widely used for analgesia during dentistry in this and other countries. American dentists find it particularly useful for children, and it is often used by pediatricians during necessary procedures on children.

Like all effective drugs, N2O can have ill effects, but only as a result of large doses, with dose being the product of three factors: (1) concentration, (2) duration of exposure, and (3) time for restitution between episodes of intermittent exposure. For instance, it can affect vitamin B12 metabolism resulting in health problems due to impaired cell division. But, because the effect is dose-dependent, problems are usually associated with chronic recreational abuse (addiction to recreational use of N2O) or inborn vitamin B-deficiency disorders. Healthy women using 50/50 mix of N2O & O2 during contractions are not at risk of this effect.

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