USA Availability: Some sales of the chemical are restricted because it can be used for manufacturing controlled substances
Uses. Although the substance has been available for hundreds of years it was not used as a drug until the nineteenth century began. The compound relaxes muscles and increases blood sugar levels. For decades it was a standard anesthetic but has been superseded by chemicals that work faster, that are better tolerated by patients, and that are less of a fire hazard. Nonetheless, knowledgeable medical personnel can use ether safely without complicated equipment, and the drug remains common where high-tech medical facilities are not common or nonexistent. In liquid form ether is used medically to clean skin surfaces before putting on adhesive tape and is used to help take off adhesive tape.
The gas format is used recreationally (sometimes along with chloroform), but drinking liquid ether is a more common recreational usage. Effects of drinking are similar to those produced by alcohol but appear faster and last briefly. People feel stimulated and confused, may experience euphoria and hallucinations, may have difficulty walking, and sometimes pass out. Ether drinking is associated with Ireland, where the custom was adopted in response to temperance movement restrictions on alcohol's availability in the 1800s. Ether drinking has been known in other European countries also, as well as the United States. In America during the 1800s ether was drunk on occasions ranging from a professional medical society meeting to weddings and quilting bees. Such a range indicates wide social acceptance of the practice. The substance was considered less harmful than alcohol. While using ether, nineteenth-century writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes made notes about spiritual insight that he felt was opening to him with the drug's help, but afterward he found the notes to be gibberish.
Drawbacks. Lighter doses of the gas stimulate breathing, but larger doses depress it. The gas irritates airways. At higher doses pulse rate and blood pressure decline. A serious unwanted effect can be a fatal convulsion. Using ether as a beverage can cause headache, increase salivation, irritate the passageway from mouth to stomach (resulting in vomiting), and produce heavy flatulence. In liquid form the substance can irritate skin and be absorbed through it.
Ether is highly flammable, and various regulations govern medical usage to reduce chances of ignition. These rules even control types of clothing worn by caregivers and types of linen used on carts, lest a static electricity spark create an explosion. Ether vapor is heavier than air and can accumulate in depressions such as the area of a pillow around a patient's head, making ignition all the more catastrophic. Stories are told of ether drinkers being killed when lighting a tobacco pipe or while indulging too close to an open flame. Even releasing ether fumes from the mouth toward a lit fireplace was considered a hazard to avoid, lest ether ignition flash back and down a person's throat.
Abuse factors. Some accounts describe ether usage as potentially addictive.
Drug interactions. Not enough scientific information to report.
Cancer. Laboratory tests indicate ether may have potential for causing cancer, but whether the substance produces the disease in animals is unknown.
Pregnancy. The drug has caused congenital malformations and fetal death in experiments on chicken embryos, but impact on humans is unclear. Women with industrial exposure are somewhat more likely to suffer spontaneous abortion. Ether passes from a pregnant woman into the fetus, but neither chronic exposure nor acute medical exposure is known to cause birth defects. Nursing infants seem unharmed by milk from women using ether.
Additional information. "Petroleum ether" and the drug ether are different substances.
Additional scientific information may be found in:
Connell, K.H. "Ether Drinking in Ulster." Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 26 (1965): 629-53.
Nagle, D.R. "Anesthetic Addiction and Drunkenness: A Contemporary and Historical
Survey." International Journal of the Addictions 3 (1968): 25-39. Strickland, R.A. "Ether Drinking in Ireland." Mayo Clinic Proceedings 71 (1996): 1015.
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