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Pressure Builds on China Over Steroids

Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said.
Workers make repairs at Green Leaf Pharmaceutical in Xianju after what was described as an April fire. The company used to sell stanozolol, a steroid, but not anymore, the workers said. (By Maureen Fan -- The Washington Post)

A recent visit to the town of Xianju in coastal Zhejiang province, where many chemical factories are based, illustrated the confusion among factory workers and law enforcement officials about exactly what can be produced and exported.

"Before, the policy was very ambiguous," said a man in the receptionist's office of Zhejiang Xianju Junye Pharmaceutical Co., who insisted on being identified only by his surname, Li. "But since customs began forbidding the export of steroids, we know we are not allowed."

'I Didn't Know'

For years, Wu Lifeng has been a small but successful middleman in Xianju. He supplied legitimate chemicals to Chinese and British suppliers by telephone, fax and e-mail. As the owner of Xianju Belter Co., he also sold human growth hormone to Chinese suppliers, without a hitch.

Wu's troubles began in August when a popular Web site invited him to place an online ad. He paid $5,480 and listed in English the many chemicals produced by Xianju's factories. He also said he could export them. That landed him on the U.S. list of targeted companies.

Just after midnight Sept. 29, Wu received a phone call asking him to report to the Xianju Foreign Trade Bureau right away. He was asked for his sales records. Officials then followed him home and searched his tiny apartment about 2 a.m. Later that day, Wu was summoned to a meeting of the Xianju County government with trade officials, medicine supervision officials, local police and representatives from three other chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

"We were asked to deliver our sales records again, and we were asked: Did we do any business with steroids and hormone? Did we export them to the U.S.? The officials said there are many things you cannot do anymore," Wu said.

Wu, who works out of his apartment, said he had not obtained any of the chemicals he advertised on the Web site, nor, he said, did he ship anything except legal chemicals. A customs official supported Wu's account.

Nevertheless, the Chinese inquiry made clear that the calculus of his business had changed. Wu downloaded from the Internet a government list of chemicals that can be used as illegal stimulants -- stimulants that can be sold only to licensed customers by companies with drug-approval codes. His online ad no longer offers to export the chemicals. "I didn't know. It's very difficult to see a very clear boundary about what you can do," Wu said.

Slipping Past Customs

Part of the challenge in regulating steroids is identifying who is selling them and why. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs have legitimate uses in pharmaceuticals, so differentiating between suppliers who sell to licensed customers and companies that peddle to bodybuilders or athletes can be difficult.

In China, pharmaceutical companies are regulated by the state FDA, which requires them to obtain drug-approval codes and sell only to licensed customers. Chemical factories that produce raw materials, however, do not need to meet those requirements. The result has been a loophole that has effectively allowed steroids to be shipped internationally without regulation.

Representatives of chemical companies say customs declarations for their products can be altered to avoid detection.

"We registered our products as raw materials, even though they are in fact the same as pharmaceutical ingredients," Chen Qixiang of Hubei Fangtong Pharmaceutical Co. acknowledged in an interview.

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