Popular muscle-building supplements may have same harmful effects as steroids

Blame Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark McGuire or macho video game heroes. Whatever the reason, the desired physique for a growing number of young men, including young teens, is lots of muscles — "ripped" in body-building parlance.

Increasingly, they bulk up not just through exercise and diet but by using supplements sold over the counter with names such as Teen Advantage and Ripped Fuel.

Yet some of the supplements that a 13-year-old can buy at the corner drugstore have gotten players suspended from the NFL, and with good reason. When metabolized, body-building supplements that contain steroid "precursors" act the same as anabolic steroids, male hormones that can be obtained only with a prescription.

While the precursors are legal, there is a growing belief that they carry potentially serious health risks.

"The fact that people would take products like this, that are freely available on the market, without thinking about their safety or efficacy is frightening," Dr. Paul Coates of the National Institutes of Health told the New York Times.

Steroids give athletes an obvious edge by helping them build muscle mass quickly, and their use is now generally banned by sports organizations. But gym rats have always found a way to obtain the drugs, either on the black market or with a prescription to treat faked symptoms of a condition that requires hormone injections.

The nutritional supplement industry has found another way. It adds substances such as androstenedione (popularized by Mark McGuire the year he broke baseball's home run record) to some of their products. The industry touts these supplements as having the same effect on the body as steroids. They could also have the same health consequences.

Steroids boost testosterone levels in the body, which could increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers. They also are linked to acne, joint problems, aggressive behavior, shrinkage of the testicles and could cause bones to stop growing prematurely in adolescents. That makes them a particular risk to teenagers.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is charged with protecting the public health, it has been of little help in this matter. Constrained by a 1994 law that gives wide latitude to the makers of nutritional supplements, FDA regulators have been slow to act.

U.S. Reps. John E. Sweeney, R-N.Y., and Tom Osborne, R-Neb., don't want to wait. Calling it a "serious public health issue," they have proposed a law that would list steroid precursors as controlled substances, which would require a prescription and remove them from over-the-counter sales. Sweeney's office said a public hearing on the issue will be held early next year.

This should be an easy call for Congress. Steroid precursors may be legal, but they have been banned by NFL, NBA, NCAA and U.S. Olympic Committee. While Major League Baseball currently looks the other way, it will begin testing players for steroid use next year.

So if these substances are the equivalent of prescription-only steroids, as the manufacturers claim, and are banned in professional sports, how can Congress fail to protect an often ill-informed public, especially teenagers? It is time for the federal government to step up to its responsibility.

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