A sting targeting nitrous oxide abuse in Los Angeles netted 400 tanks of the inhalant with a street value of about $20 million, authorities said Friday.
André Birotte Jr., the U.S. Attorney for Southern California, had a stern message for those involved in dealing the toxic gas.
"It is no laughing matter at all," he said. "Children are being harmed. Lives are being destroyed. And children are being sent to the hospital ... and worse case to the morgue."
Federal agents hauled some 80 canisters of nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, from a welding shop in LA as part of Operation No Laughing Matter, which included serving more than 20 search warrants Friday.
Edward Valencia, 51; Federico Valencie, 58; and Rose Marie Cuellar, 20, were arrested Friday in the sweep that raided 17 businesses and nine delivery trucks linked to an illicit nitrous oxide ring.
Law enforcement agents zeroed in on auto shops suspected of selling the inhalant illegally following a year-and-a-half long investigation.
Often used as a medical anesthetic or an engine booster, authorities said the gas, sometimes referred to as "nozz," can be used as a cheap drug.
"They fill a balloon and huff from that or they huff directly from the tank," said special agent Lisa Hartsell, with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).