The Los Angeles Fire Department confirmed Monday that nitrous oxide caused last Wednesday's explosion near the intersection of Adams Boulevard and Grand Avenue that killed one and injured three.
Chemically speaking, nitrous-oxide is two parts nitrogen and one part oxygen. Slang-wise, it's referred to as "nos." Legally speaking, it's on California's list of hazardous substances but it's not officially a controlled substance, says Mike Small of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement in the state's Department of Justice.
Neither is it a controlled substance at the federal level, according to Special Agent José Martinez of the L.A. division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In fact, you'll find it in a lot of dentists' offices – it's in the laughing gas they use to sedate their patients.
"What it does is it alters patients' perceptions of what's going on," said Jonathan Engel, a dentist with Southern California Dental Health Associates. "We use it to help patients who are antsy and nervous in their chair. It calms them down so they don't care as much."
Engel says the gas only takes the edge off, and emphasized it's used alongside, "never in lieu of," anesthetic. It's not a painkiller, in other words.
"The basic concept behind nitrous is it provides you a euphoric feeling," he explained.
Nitrous as recreational drug
Plenty of people chase that euphoric feeling without the dental surgery, though. It's got other legitimate uses – car performance improvement being one of them – but it's also something people huff for a quick high.
Allen St. Pierre is the executive director of NORML, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for the repeal of laws prohibiting marijuana. He says nitrous as an inhalant drug is nothing new – it was there 25 years ago, when he was going to Grateful Dead and Phish shows.
"It's something that's been around for a while," St. Pierre said.
Megan Ralston is the harm reduction coordinator for the Los Angeles division of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), an organization that promotes alternatives to current drug policies that are "grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights." She agreed with St. Pierre.
"It's been around forever," she said. "Just decades and decades of people experimenting with nitrous to get a buzz." Ralston added that it's not on DPA's radar "as an emerging trend."
"It's just one of those drugs we don't really spend a lot of time working on from a regulatory or policy or harm reduction perspective," she said.
Engel says there are four "phases" of taking nitrous: a tingly sensation in the extremities, then a warm sensation, followed by a feeling of well-being – that's the euphoria – and then possibly sleepiness.
"The actual mechanism is still unknown, but it depresses almost all forms of sensation," he said.
It's a drug that's simple to deliver, Engel explained, and one that's pretty much without a hangover. "You might get a little lightheadedness; you might just not care for a little bit," he said.
That's consistent with what 21-year-old Alexander Pires has seen. Pires, a Pasadena resident, takes computer classes on the southside. He says a lot his friends get high off nitrous.
"Everything's slow and everything's super funny to them, and they can't stop laughing," he said, describing what he witnesses when his friends huff it. "And when they come down they get all dizzy. Those are the symptoms that I've seen."
The DEA classifies nitrous as an inhalant, and warns that inhalant abuse can "cause damage to the parts of the brain that control thinking, moving, seeing, and hearing." It further adds that "cognitive abnormalities can range from mild impairment to severe dementia."
But Ralston isn't worried about that when it comes to nitrous.
"I think it's generally considered pretty safe in small infrequent doses, like many drugs," she said. "There's some evidence that there can be impact with heavy, long-term use, but that's sort of the same as it would be any other controlled substance." In other words, moderation is key.
Engel says the machines in his office cannot administer nitrous-oxide that's less than 32 percent oxygen, which is a higher percentage of oxygen than is in regular air. That helps avoid any danger.
"If someone's in an environment where the nitrous is competing with oxygen, that's when you're in trouble," he explained, adding that nitrous naturally competes with oxygen. "Nitrous lowers the actual percentage of oxygen getting to the brain and that creates hypoxia" – also known as oxygen-deprivation.
Oxygen-deprivation doesn't happen when people get nitrous in a dentist's office – that happens when people abuse it. "Nitrous does not kill brain cells," Engel said. "Hypoxia does."
There are other risks involved with taking nitrous recreationally, he said. If people are sucking it out of balloons and passing the same balloon around to their friends, all of the oxygen is behind sucked out but none is being put back in; instead, the balloon is getting pumped full of carbon-dioxide, which can be lethal if the concentration is high enough. And when people take nitrous straight from the nozzle of a canister, it's "very cold and can freeze the nose, lips, throat and vocal cords." Additionally, excessive use can "interfere with vitamin B12 function," which can damage the nervous system.
(To illustrate what "excessive use" would mean, Engel pointed to whippits – the steel cartridges of nitrous oxide used as a whipping agent in cans of whipped cream. About 400 of those a week would qualify as excessive, he said.)
But the dentist says the most dangerous part of taking nitrous oxide isn't chemical.
"The biggest risk is standing and getting enough of a rush that you get weak on your feet for a second or so," he said. "The biggest problem with recreational use is falling and hurting yourself."
Legality and safety
It's illegal in California to possess nitrous oxide "with the intent to breathe, inhale or ingest for the purpose" of getting high. It's also illegal to sell or provide the substance to anyone under 18.
It's a misdemeanor to break both laws.
But it's not illegal to use nitrous to enhance a vehicle's performance. Although authorities investigating the explosion won't say what kind of business resided in the building that blew up on Wednesday, there are indicators that at least part of its business plan was to sell vehicle performance-enhancing nitrous.
A bumper sticker on the small building's door read "NOSWerks." The Twitter account for NOSWerks indicated that it did at one point sell nitrous oxide refills: "Nos Refills $4 Grand Opening Jan. 27 Friday @ 4pm," read the account's single tweet, dated January 27, 2012.
Phil Lukens has owned Blair's Speed Shop in Pasadena since 1975. He sells nitrous, but buyers are required to be over 18, have a driver's license and have a proper, approved bottle for storage of the nitrous. (Lukens says spotting unapproved bottles is no problem.) Drivers will install a nitrous system in their car, which injects both nitrous and gasoline into the motor. The nitrous creates more air, which allows for more gas, which means more horsepower.
But he says last Wednesday's explosion is strange – in part because nitrous-oxide doesn't blow up.
"It's a non-flammable gas," says Lukens. "If you've ever watched 'Fast and Furious', where that guy turns on the nitrous bottle in the car, then turns on his cigarette lighter and the car blows up? That can't happen."
Lukens explained the only way nitrous can explode is if the container it's in explodes. It's possible, he says, that the blast was caused by someone mixing nitrous with another substance – like gasoline – or if it's heated up to extreme temperatures. He said it'd be nearly impossible for someone to pump enough pressure into the cylinder to make it explode – "unless you've got a million-dollar pump somewhere."
"It had to be some kind of oddball bottle where they were heating the heck out of it," he said, pointing to the fact that regulation, approved bottles have safety valves that will let excess pressure out.
The explosion killed 31-year-old Roberto Lasarte and injured three others, who authorities haven't yet identified or released any information on. CAL-OSHA has taken the lead on the investigation, and spokesman Peter Melton says "this investigation will be open for a while."
"It's not going to close anytime soon," he said, declining to provide further details.