Questions have been raised about the safety of drinks containing liquid nitrogen following an incident involving an 18-year-old British woman last week. The girl, who was out celebrating in a wine bar with friends, drank a liquid nitrogen cocktail and quickly became ill with severe abdominal pain and shortness of breath before being admitted to Royal Lancaster Infirmary.

Gabby Scanlan was diagnosed with a perforated stomach by doctors at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, and had to have her stomach removed (gastrectomy) to save her life.

Liquid nitrogen cocktails have become popular because they bubble and let out a cauldron-like smoky steam. Their use is controversial because liquid nitrogen boils at -196°C (-321 °F), a potentially lethal temperature.

Liquid nitrogen is not regulated in most parts of the world, so there is virtually no control on its use.

Today, the Australian Medical Association issued a public warning about the dangers of using liquid nitrogen in alcoholic beverages.

Geoff Dobb, Vice-President of the Australian Medical Association, says that liquid nitrogen cocktails are potentially very dangerous. He described them as colder than the coldest winter night in the Antarctic – something that will give any human tissue instant frostbite.

When liquid nitrogen turns from a liquid into a gas, it expands to more than 600 times its liquid volume. If it is swallowed and gets down into the person’s stomach, it could explode.

The Australian Medical Association accepts that when used responsibly, liquid nitrogen cocktails are fun and safe. The problem may come in bars where people are intoxicated and gulp it down without thinking.

Liquid nitrogen was first introduced as a way of presenting food in 1890, in a cookery book written by Mrs Marchall called “Fancy Ices”. More recently, its use became popularized by Heston Blumenthal, a well known chef who used it to create fashionable upmarket ice-creams.

Foods cool rapidly when placed in liquid nitrogen, and create small ice crystals, giving a dessert a “smoother effect”.

Top restaurants often prepare dishes using liquid nitrogen at the customer’s table for maximum effect.

It was not long before bars started preparing cocktails using liquid nitrogen – what we call “liquid nitrogen cocktails”. Ingredients and glasses can be chilled instantaneously, add to this the smoky effect, and it became popular very fast.

Scientists say that nitrogen is a harmless gas. It makes up 78.09% of our atmosphere. Liquid nitrogen is the same gas that has been cooled down to a very low temperature. However, they add that laboratory personnel take precautions when using liquid gas – it needs to be handled properly.

Nitrogen has no color, taste or smell. In laboratories personnel are very careful not to drop it, especially in confined spaces, as there may be a danger of asphyxiation.

James Graham, who worked in a medical research unit as a lab worker in Edinburgh, Scotland, died from asphyxiation in October 1999 when liquid nitrogen was released at the Medical Research Council’s laboratory at Western General Hospital.

The Medical Research Council, pleaded guilty for breaching safety regulations which resulted in Graham’s death. He had been carrying out routine tasks with liquid nitrogen – freezing biological samples – for over ten years. The Medical Research Council admitted the following safety failures:

  • inadequate ventilation
  • not making sure the alarm system was switched on
  • not installing a safety device to control a liquid storage tank

For more information on this incident, go to this BBC web page.

As in scientific laboratories, shouldn’t restaurants and bars have safety measures before allowing their staff to handle liquid nitrogen?

Most experts agree that with proper safety procedures and the right training, liquid nitrogen in restaurants and bars can be a lot of fun, and relatively safe.

However, some are now starting to wonder whether a substance that expands to over 600 times its volume, and is so cold that it completely freezes and destroys any human tissue it comes in touch with, should continue to be unregulated.

If you swallow just a teaspoon of liquid nitrogen, the consequences could be fatal.

Written by Christian Nordqvist