Like many powerful drugs, anabolic steroids are easy to find on the Internet, including some that are undetectable by drug tests, according to an expert on dietary supplements.
That's because steroids can be slightly altered, explains Dr. William Obermeyer, vice president for research at ConsumerLab.com, a dietary supplement testing company. This makes it easy for amateur chemists to cook up a new formulation and label it as a harmless "muscle-building" dietary supplement.
"Steroids are such a big business," he said. "The reality is if you know what's being tested, you can change up the steroid a little bit."
Obermeyer was responding to an article in the Oct. 18 edition of The Washington Post in which Don Catlin, who directs the U.S. Olympic drug testing lab at UCLA, tested products labeled as supplements that can build muscle. Four of the five drugs tested were positive for anabolic steroids.
Steroid use among professional athletes has made headlines in recent years, highlighting how easy it is to obtain undetectable steroids. This year, Congress held hearings on steroids, and several laws aimed at stemming the problem have been introduced.
While professional athletes have tremendous resources and good medical care, amateur athletes are the people truly at risk from the wide availability of potentially harmful steroid supplements, Obermeyer said.
Any company who makes products labeled as "supplements" is not legally required to list what these products actually contain. But to hint that their product might contain active steroids, they often will market the product as "muscle building."
However, only the company knows the strength of its product, leaving the purchaser in the dark. Steroids, particularly in large quantities or during long-term use, can weaken the immune system, induce rage or irritability, and increase the chances of a heart attack or stroke at a young age. They also can cause male-pattern baldness, cysts, acne, and oily hair and skin.
"Some of it's trial by error," Obermeyer said, referring to how athletes find the products. "Some of these supplements, they hear through the grapevine about what is actually in them."
Catlin tested: 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 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 by the newspaper for interviews.
This comes as no surprise to Obermeyer, who said the companies sounded like "fly-by-night" operations.
Even if companies that produce supplements with steroids are shut down, he said, new ones will likely crop up.
"This is not anything new," Obermeyer said. "If there's a profit, if it's a commodity, or you're trying to beat a test, these guys are going to do it."