Chemists Stay a Step Ahead of Drug Testers
Internet Offers New Steroids Designed to Be Undetectable
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2005; Page E01
If members of Congress leading efforts to eradicate performance-enhancing drugs from athletics want to get an idea of just how difficult that will be, they need only turn to the Internet.
While the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation continues in San Francisco and Major League Baseball officials argue with the players' union over what penalties should be handed down to drug offenders, the Web already offers a new generation of steroids designed to avoid current tests.
The Washington Post obtained five dietary supplements -- each of which touted its ability to build muscle fast -- available online and asked a prominent Los Angeles researcher to test them. Don Catlin, who directs the U.S. Olympic drug testing lab at UCLA, said four of the products contained previously undetected anabolic steroids. One contained a steroid that came to the attention of authorities just two years ago but, until now, was thought to be in only limited circulation.
"They are all steroids," Catlin said in a telephone interview after running tests on the substances, which are available in pill or liquid form. "They are all going to be effective." The Post reimbursed Catlin for the cost of testing the substances.
It is impossible to gauge the use of these so-called designer steroids. But their discovery shows how professional athletes, including Major League Baseball and National Football League players and Olympic athletes subject to regular, mandatory drug tests, continue to have at their disposal performance-enhancing products that are not detectable.
Catlin said the steroids are reminiscent of tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, and norbolethone, the two steroids connected to BALCO, the Burlingame, Calif.-based nutritional supplements company whose clients included Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and more than a dozen professional baseball and football players and track and field athletes. But unlike THG, which was sold secretly to elite athletes before Catlin discovered it in 2003, the five supplements obtained by The Post are widely available -- and affordable. Their costs ranged from $50 to $125 per bottle.
And this might just be the beginning. Two officials with prominent U.S. dietary supplement companies, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it is easy for companies to outwit drug testers. "There's an unlimited pool of steroids," one official said. "You could do this for the next 100 years. . . . The longer they don't pay attention the [more rampant] it gets."
Difficult Market to Stop
Despite all the attention being given to steroid use in sports, chemists have apparently been able to manufacture a steady stream of new steroids, often by just slightly altering the chemical properties of known banned drugs or by turning to long-forgotten recipes from steroid cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s. "It's pretty obvious what's going on," Catlin said. The companies "are making tons of money. If they don't get caught, they turn on the spigot and turn out more."
"It's not very difficult for some smart chemist to bypass" the law, said Olivier Rabin, the science director at the World Anti-Doping Agency, which sets drug policy for many international sports. The Montreal-based agency announced last month that it would place the steroids in three of the products obtained by The Post on its 2006 list of banned drugs following an internal review that was not connected to Catlin's analysis.
The supplement company officials said the lenient sentences handed down in the BALCO probe seem to have emboldened U.S. companies to delve into the distribution of newly created designer steroids, moving an industry previously the secret domain of black-market chemists, tight-lipped middlemen and small groups of elite athletes into the mainstream.
BALCO founder Victor Conte, who admitted giving steroids and other drugs to athletes, negotiated a plea deal with federal prosecutors this year that included just four months imprisonment. Former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski admits in a new book that he used Conte's designer steroids to avoid the league's drug testing program. "As soon as I found out something could be tested for, I stopped taking it," the book states, CBS News reported Sunday.
In response to the furor over the BALCO revelations, Congress this year held several high-profile hearings in which it heard testimony from athletes and sports league commissioners about steroid use. Lawmakers introduced four separate bills aimed at imposing federal drug-testing standing standards on professional sports, though none is expected to pass this year.
Chemists Stay a Step Ahead of Drug Testers
Officials within the dietary supplement industry said increasingly rigorous drug testing in U.S. professional sports and tougher anti-steroid laws -- the Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004 made 36 steroids illegal, bringing the total to 59 banned in the United States -- have sent the demand for undetectable steroids skyrocketing.
Catlin said that in more than 20 years in Olympic drug testing, he had found only three designer steroids, all between 2002 and 2004, before this summer, when The Post sent him the five dietary supplements. "THG was the thing that broke it all open," Catlin said. "It's a simple step to expect that more people will come into the market because there's money to be made."
Athletes have for decades sought out anabolic steroids because they help build muscle and endurance. But steroids are also known for undesirable side effects and most professional sports have banned their use.
The five products tested by Catlin were: Superdrol, supplied by Designer Supplements of New Hyde Park, N.Y., for Anabolic Xtreme of San Diego; Prostanozoland Ergomax LMG, both marketed by Applied Lifescience Research Industries (ALRI) of Las Vegas; Methyl 1-P, sold by Legal Gear of Brighton, Mich.; and, FiniGenX Magnum Liquid, sold by PharmaGenX of San Marcos, Calif.
Representatives from each of the companies declined or did not respond to multiple written and telephone requests for interviews.
Kevin Smith, the president of Anabolic Xtreme, said in an e-mail that the company no longer distributes Superdrol.
ALRI head Author L. Rea and industry partner Bruce Kneller of Gaspari Nutrition, which has a working relationship with ALRI, wrote in an open letter to The Post on a public Internet message board that "none of the compounds we have developed and currently market are in current violation of any controlled substance act at either the federal or state level. . . . We feel our products are correctly [and legally] marketed to and for educated, intelligent adult men."
Known steroids were first banned in the United States in the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, which was crafted during the furor over steroids that arose after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for an anabolic steroid at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul after winning a gold medal in the 100 meters.
Congress last year banned dozens of dietary supplements in an attempt to curb the distribution of steroid products. That law, which went into effect in January, was aimed primarily at products known as steroid precursors, substances that metabolize into illegal steroids only after they are ingested. The products obtained by The Post are full-blown steroids, Catlin said.
"Congress has spoken definitively, absolutely, on any kind of anabolic steroids or precursors," said Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.), who is sponsoring legislation that would make it more difficult to buy banned steroids over the Internet by forcing Internet auction sites to more aggressively police themselves. "This is absolutely contrary to what we've already been very clear about. . . . It's really a flouting of the laws in place, and it requires Congress to look harder and close those loopholes."
It is against the law to sell drugs that are improperly labeled or not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
Catlin's analyses of the five products obtained by The Post suggest that none is properly labeled as a dietary supplement, as defined in the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which governs the industry and places dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of foods rather than drugs. The FDA declared THG illegal after it was identified by Catlin in 2003, noting that it was a synthetic anabolic steroid.
FDA officials declined interview requests, according to FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings, but in an e-mailed statement she said the agency has been aggressively combating the distribution of steroids and steroid-like substances in dietary supplements. Rawlings cited regulatory steps taken since 2004 to remove androstenedione -- which is known as andro and was made famous by former baseball player Mark McGwire in the 1990s -- from the market.
"The agency is prepared to take appropriate action against any product that purports to be a 'dietary supplement' if it is determined that product contains steroids, steroid precursors or active ingredients found in prescription drugs," Rawlings said.
One of the steroids Catlin identified had been available on the underground steroid market before it made its way into supplements. In Ergomax LMG, Catlin said he found the steroid madol -- also known as DMT -- that attracted headlines after it was seized by Canadian customs in December 2003 from a former Canadian sprinter, who was prosecuted in Canada on drug charges earlier this year. After the athlete was caught with the drug, WADA declared it banned.
Bottles of Superdrol and Ergomax LMG obtained by The Post in August did not contain their chemical formulations on their labels, referring to their contents only by trademarked names -- Methasteron in the case of Superdrol and Pherobolix in the case of Ergomax. Catlin said neither name had any scientific meaning that would aid in identifying it. A bottle of Prostanozol reported its chemical formulation, but used outdated chemical language in what Catlin said appeared to be an attempt to avoid being "flagged by some nasty government computer." And two ingredients -- one a synthetic anabolic steroid, another a progestin, a close relative to a steroid -- did not match the chemical names reported on a bottle of Methyl 1-P, Catlin said. An advertisement for FiniGenX Magnum on the company Web site gives insight into PharmaGenX's operating philosophy.
"THE MOST POTENT DIETARY SUPPLEMENT EVER DEVELOPED FOR SIZE AND STRENGTH IS STILL LEGAL!" the advertisement says. "Finigenx Magnum . . . was not on the updated Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004. We had independent chemists search the 'Act'" from top to bottom for Finigenx Magnum or any ingredients that are in our solution and they came up with ZERO, ZIP, NADA."
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