The death of a District of Columbia disco patron has triggered an investigation by federal authorities into how they can halt the legal, multi-million dollar trade in butyl nitrite, a chemical marketed as a room deodorizer but used increasingly on the disco scene as a stimulant.

Food and Drug Administration officials say they are not sure they have the legal authority to move against the chemical's manufacturers, who make no claims for it as a drug or medication.

The substance, however, comes in "a brown glass bottle containing maybe a third of an ounce of liquid," said assistant D.C. Medical Examiner Douglas S. Dixon. It is sold under the names, "Locker Room," "Rush," "Hard Ware," "Discoroma," "Bolt," "Oz," "Satan's Scent" and "Climax."

According to Dixon, FDA investigators believe the butyl nitrites all are produced by the same manufacturer. However, he said, a chemical analysis showed slight variations in quality among different brands. The bottles do not list a manufacturer, Dixon said, but only a distributor.

Butyl nitrite differs by only a single molecule from amyl nitrite, a prescription drug used legally by heart patients to ease pain and illegally by many to enhance sexual pleasure, said Dixon.

Known for years as "snappers" or "poppers," amyl nitrite ampules are crushed and held beneath the nostrils and then inhaled.

Inhaling either amul or butyl nitrate, said Dixon, results in a warm feeling, flushing of the skin and "rush" as the blood vessels of the body dilate and blood rushes to the brain.

Bottles of butyl Nitrite, which is not a prescription drug and has no medicinal use, are sold for from $2.50 to $5 each in various shops, including some discos, said Dixon. The chemical smells "vaguely like dirty socks," he said.

According to Dixon the dead man, Jesse Wilson, a 30-year-old resident of Danbury, Conn., was seen with a small brown bottle in the men's room of "The Room," a disco at New York Avenue and 12th Street NW, early on the morning of July 25.

A short time later, said Dixon, Wilson was acting strangely on the sidewalk in front of the disco. Offered help by a police officer, Wilson said he was all right and then crossed the street to lie down on a park bench. Wilson then lost consciousness, Dixon said, and was taken to George Washington University Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 4:20 a.m.

According to Dixon, Wilson had swallowed butyl nitrite and died "of acute nitrite poisoning."

Wilson's stomach was "intensely inflamed," he had "high levels of nitrite in his stomach and some in his blook," and his blood was brown, all signs of nitrite poisoning.

Dixon said that, despite warnings on the butyl nitrite bottles such as "not for human consumption," "keep out of the reach of children," and advice to swallow warm milk if the "room deodorizer" is accidentally swallowed, the Wilson case is the third reported butyl nitrite poisoning in the District. The other two victims recovered, said Dison.

Butyl and amyl nitrite kill by causing the formation of methemoglobin in the blood, a form of hemoglobin incapable of carrying oxygen, said Dixon.