Nearly six out of 10 college athletes use untested, unregulated dietary supplements, an NCAA survey has found, and a rising number are using the banned stimulant ephedrine, a possible factor in the recent deaths of three football players.
"It's very worrisome," said Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, medical director of the Sports Medicine Institute for Young Athletes at New York's Hospital for Special Surgery.
"None of these products has ever been tested in any kid. We have no idea if they're safe, particularly in the long run."
More than 21,000 students, the greatest number ever, responded to the NCAA's drug-use survey.
The use of ephedrine rose from 3.5 percent four years ago to 3.9 percent. The most startling rise was among women gymnasts, whose rate increased eightfold from the previous study. In 1997, 1.1 percent admitted ephedrine use; this time, 8.3 percent said they used the stimulant.
The three football playersRashidi Wheeler of Northwestern, Devaughn Darling of Florida State and Curtis Jones, who played for an indoor pro team in Utahwere said to be using ephedrine.
Wheeler died of bronchial asthma, a preliminary report by the medical examiner said. But university officials are investigating reports that he and some teammates might have used Ultimate Orange, a popular supplement containing ephedrine.
Jones, 34, had been using a capsule called Hydroxycut, containing ephedrine, for three months ending in August 1999, it was revealed at the time of his autopsy. The drug can have a lasting effect up to two years after ingestion, doctors say.
Traces of ephedrine were found in Darling's system at his autopsy.
Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from Ephedra, a shrub-like plant found in desert regions in Central Asia and other parts of the world.
It is an FDA-regulated drug used in over-the-counter asthma medications. It is sold in health-food stores under several brand names and is used to lose weight, boost energy and enhance athletic performance. Also known by its Asian name, ma huang, ephedrine is said by some trial attorneys suing its manufacturers to have sickened or killed 800 users. Those claims remain to be proven.
For the first time, the NCAA survey asked athletes about their use of dietary supplements. A total of 58.4 percent said they used a nutritional supplement other than multivitamins in the previous year. Two out of three of them said they obtained the supplements on their own, rather than through a coach, trainer or physician.
"I absolutely do not think the rate is that high at the University of Michigan," U-M Athletic Director Bill Martin said Tuesday. "We drug-test all of our athletes periodically and at random. There has been no incident ever of (ephedrine) being found."
All use of dietary supplements is banned, Martin said. "This is an education issue. We're constantly keeping our coaches and trainers aware of the implications of this, and the message they have to pass on to their players."
Drug tests have never found ephedrine use among Michigan State athletes, either, according to Jeffrey Kovan, head team physician.
"One area where we're very fortunateand Michigan can say this as wellis that we have a strength and conditioning program that truly believes that supplements, or over-the-counter performance enhancers, just aren't the way to go," Kovan said.
The 58.4 percent usage figure came as no surprise to Eastern Michigan baseball coach Roger Coryell. Three years ago, the manufacturers of a popular dietary supplement asked Coryell to buy it in bulk for his players.
"They said it would certainly enhance performance," Coryell said, "and that other colleges and universities were using it, so to keep up we should do the same."
Coryell turned down the proposal, he said, because he noticed that players on his team who admitted using supplements seemed to suffer excessive muscle pulls and cramping. "For anybody who got overheated, sweated a lot, it was really detrimental," he said. "I decided that until our trainers and physicians said everybody was using it and it was OK, I didn't think it was right to use it."
Coryell's experience prompted State Sen. Leon Stille to sponsor legislation prohibiting coaches, other school employees or volunteers from distributing performance-enhancing supplements in Michigan.
The point person who researched the law for Stille, Audrey Robinson, said she wasn't "all that surprised" at the use of supplements found in the NCAA survey.
"My brother played high school football, and he used them and a lot of his teammates used them," she said. "I don't think they necessarily contained banned substances, but could they be harmful? Sure."
In other areas of the survey, 80 percent of athletes said they drink to some extent, and 43 percent admit being binge drinkers, downing six or more drinks at a sitting.
Twenty-seven percent said they smoked marijuana.
There was good news on some fronts:
* Anabolic steroid use remained low at 1.4 percentup from 1.1 percent in the 1997 survey, but still well below the 4.9 percent who admitted using them in 1989.
Use of chewing, or spit tobacco declined to 17.4 percent, from 22.5 percent in 1997 and 27.6 percent in 1989. Its use remains high in some specific sports, however, such as 41 percent of baseball players, 29 percent of football players and 18 percent of women skiers.
Student-athletes who responded to an NCAA survey said they used the following in the past year: