Harlow hospital stops gas and air for mums-to-be as safety fears grow over safety of staff

A midwife talking to a pregnant woman.
Credit: PA
Levels of nitrous oxide in maternity wards at Harlow's PAH are unsafe, said bosses. Credit: PA

More mums-to-be will not be offered painkilling gas and air, as fears spread that it is creating unsafe conditions for staff working on maternity units.

The decision to withdraw the pain relief at the Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH) in Essex comes after Ipswich Hospital withdrew the treatment for pregnant women, saying that residual levels of nitrous oxide in the air were at an unsafe level.

Experts say there is no risk to families and babies using the unit, though prolonged exposure to the gas is a greater risk for staff who work there.

Bosses at the PAH said the decision "to protect our midwifery and medical team" followed tests on the residual levels of nitrous oxide, adding that the hospital would install additional safety equipment to allow them to resume the use of gas and air as soon as possible.

Gas and air - also known as Entonox - is a mix of nitrous oxide gas and oxygen, and often given as a pain relief during labour.

Many hospitals use a piped supply, but some use a mix from cylinders - and that method is understood to leave behind higher levels of nitrous oxide in the air.

Giuseppe Labriola, director of midwifery, said: "There are a full range of other pain relief options that our team are discussing with women and pregnant people on an individual basis.

"We have a team of expert engineers testing the system and plans to install additional safety equipment to allow us to resume the use of Entonox as soon as possible.

"There are no risks to people attending, staying or visiting the hospital.”

Last week, expectant mothers told ITV News Anglia of their fears at giving birth without their preferred pain control, if systems at Ipswich Hospital were not updated in time.

East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, said it was trying to resolve the issue with mobile ventilation units, but said on Monday that gas and air use was still suspended.

“Until there is a safe and effective solution, we are unable to reintroduce gas and air to ensure we keep our maternity team safe," said a spokesman.

Basildon Hospital in Essex also recently withdrew gas and air after an investigation into high levels of nitrous oxide. 

It was reinstated before Christmas after a new ventilation system was installed.

A spokesperson for Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Basildon Hospital, said: “Significant improvements have been made and it is perfectly safe for service users to continue to use the maternity unit.

"We have taken action to resolve the situation and an investigation is under way.  Support and advice is being offered to our staff.”

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