Chemists Stay a Step Ahead of Drug Testers
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
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.