EAST Lothian’s most senior police officer has warned of the dangers of youngsters inhaling nitrous oxide – known as laughing gas – after more than 500 used canisters of the substance, which can cause hallucinations and potentially death, were found at a popular county beach.

Users – who usually inhale the gas using a balloon – get a temporary high but can become panicky and confused.

During a clear up of Longniddry Bents last week, 533 discarded canisters were found, alongside hundreds of empty alcohol bottles.

Chief Inspector Neil Mitchell, the local area police commander, has warned of a trend among young people of nitrous oxide use and urged parents to speak to their children about its dangers.

The father-of-two said it was “extremely concerning” and told the Courier: “Inhaling the gas slows down messages between the brain and body, causing temporary feelings of calmness and joy.

“Negative effects can include dizziness, headaches or fainting. It can also cause confusion and cloud judgement. Sometimes the user can see or hear things that aren’t real.

“The risks include it preventing the ability to breathe and, in extreme cases, death.

“It can cause the heart rate to beat irregularly, increasing the risk of heart failure and heavy use has been linked to vitamin B12 deficiency which can cause nerve damage.

“As well as these, the user can become confused and panicky which may lead to accidents.”

The gas is not illegal and can be bought widely online and is used by dentists and medical professionals to sedate patients for minor medical procedures.

The officer stressed it was “not something we want our children and young people experimenting with”.

A spokesperson for Midlothian and East Lothian Drugs and Alcohol Partnership (MELDAP) said: “We would like to remind the public that laughing gas might sound fun, but the risks are not.

“Nitrous oxide slows down messages between the brain and body.

“Negative effects can include dizziness, headaches or fainting and difficulty in your ability to breathe.

“It can also cause confusion and clouded judgement.

“This may put you at higher risk of accidents.

“It is best to avoid using nitrous oxide, especially if you have an underlying health condition and mixing it with other drugs, particularly alcohol, increases the risk of harm.

“Anyone seeking further assistance, support or advice is advised to contact MYPAS who provide a friendly, confidential and nonjudgemental drug and alcohol support for young people in East Lothian and Midlothian.”

Sharon Saunders, head of communities and partnerships at East Lothian Council, said: “We have had reports of the misuse of these canisters from a number of council services including Safer Communities, Countryside Rangers and MELDAP and, as leaders of services for children and young people, we are all concerned that people know of this developing trend and the significant risks associated with use of these canisters.

“Using these canisters poses significant health concerns as it’s a harmful and potentially lethal substance and it’s important that young people and their families are aware of the real and significant health risks associated with using these canisters.”

Kenny MacAskill, East Lothian’s MP, and Iain Gray, the county’s MSP, backed plans for a multi-agency meeting to tackle the issue.

Mr MacAskill said: “One of the main problems in this case is one of supply.

“The substance can feel quite easy to get hold of, but this is absolutely no indicator that it is safe.

“It is extremely dangerous, especially for those with undiagnosed or asymptomatic illnesses.

“Young people who are abusing it are taking huge risks themselves and for their friends as well.

“One of the problems is that there are legitimate uses for the capsules, especially in the catering industry.

“There needs to be a well-rounded approach to tackling this latest trend, involving education, support from the police and responsible vendors.”

Mr Gray was similarly keen to see the issue tackled and encouraged anyone with information to contact the police.

He said: “There have been widespread reports of large numbers of these discarded canisters being found in areas across the UK over recent weeks.

“The fact that so many were found in one place here suggests that this is also a problem locally and one that will undoubtedly be of concern to parents.

“I’m pleased to see that a multiagency response is being pursued to help tackle the issue, and would certainly echo what has been said about parents discussing the potential risks with their children and reporting any relevant information to the police.”

Ch Insp Mitchell urged parents, writing in his Courier column: “Please do all you can to talk to your children, discuss the dangers of these canisters and of the impact of anti-social behaviour.

“Even if they haven’t been part of the group, they may know who has been and please report any concerns to us on the 101 number or 999 in an emergency.

“If we all work together we can improve our communities and keep our children and young people safe.”