Experts doubt his claim to be an unwitting victim

Dark Day For Palmeiro

August 02, 2005|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Authorities on steroid use said they find it hard to believe slugger Rafael Palmeiro's assertion that he unknowingly took a steroid that triggered a positive drug test, leading to his 10-day suspension from baseball.

It is remotely possible, they said, that trace amounts of a banned steroid contaminated a legal substance that the Oriole first baseman was taking. But if that's what happened, his cryptic statement yesterday offered no evidence.

"Not knowing what he was taking unfortunately leads to lots of speculation," said Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an internist with New York University and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency's medical research committee.

Speculation is centering on nandrolone, a steroid-like compound that has turned up in trace amounts in some dietary supplements. Recent studies found that that supplement's makers didn't always clean equipment sufficiently to keep it out of products made in the same facilities.

Some athletes who have been disciplined after testing positive for steroids blamed contamination for the results.

"No question, it takes very tiny amounts in micrograms to produce positive urine tests," Wadler said. "And you could get an athlete who believes in protein powders, reads the label that says all the right things, and the next thing you know he's positive."

Whatever happened, he said, Palmeiro could end the speculation by being forthcoming.

"Candor is what's called for," Wadler said. "That's what this case needs, not obfuscation, not wordsmithing."

Others were more skeptical.

"This is perilously close to `the dog ate my homework,'" said Dr. Charles Yersalis, a Pennsylvania State University epidemiologist who studies doping in competitive sports.

"I don't know Palmeiro, but elite athletes don't do cowboy chemistry. They don't walk into the store and say, `This stuff looks neat. I'll try it.' Generally they have nutritional handlers, advisers, sports physicians, trainers."

Dr. Bill Howard, a surgeon specializing in sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital, said he can't imagine any nonsteroid substance that would trigger a positive steroid result.

"Whatever it is - pill, capsule, shake that causes him to be positive for steroids - he ought to tell us what it is," Howard said. "I just flat don't believe it."

The steroid policy that Major League Baseball enacted this spring bans steroids, steroid precursors, ephedra, human growth hormone, diuretics and other masking agents.

Much of the confusion over Palmeiro's statement stemmed from its vagueness. He admitted testing positive for steroids and said he would pay the penalty. But he also maintained that he did not take the banned substance intentionally and strongly hinted that he was the victim of contamination.

He said people should learn from his mistake that "it's important to understand the risk of contamination and be very careful about what they put into their bodies."

A federal law that went into effect in January banned over-the-counter sales of steroid precursors, including androstenedione, the supplement that Mark McGwire admitted taking in 1998, the year he hit a record-setting 70 home runs.

The law also banned some chemical cousins of "andro," including a product called 19-norandrostenedione. Taken in pill form, the drug converts to nandrolone, a steroid that had been banned years earlier in its pure, injectible form.

"It turns out that because the supplement industry did not implement good manufacturing practices, there has always been around the world contamination of other dietary supplements with 19-norandrostenedione," Wadler said.

Two years ago, a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found widespread contamination of nutritional supplements. In the study, scientists analyzed 634 nonhormonal substances purchased in 13 countries from 215 suppliers. Almost 15 percent of the products contained muscle-building male hormones not listed on the label.

Steroid precursors have effects similar to those of steroids, experts say. The body metabolizes the substances and turns them into testosterone, the male hormone that builds lean muscle mass.

One compound that is not prohibited for sale in the United States is DHEA, a precursor to androstenedione. At least one study has shown that taking DHEA can significantly increase the body's testosterone levels.

Dr. Borislav Starcevic, a chemist with a University of California, Los Angeles laboratory that analyzes blood samples from Olympic athletes and co-author of an earlier study of contamination in the supplement industry, said he could not judge Palmeiro's statement without more information.

"It is plausible there could be contamination," he said. "But it all depends on the particular case. I couldn't tell you anything specific until I know what he was taking."

Yersalis, however, said contamination is a far-fetched and numbingly familiar explanation.

"It is one of the two or three mainstay excuses over the last 30 years for a positive drug test," he said.

Sun staff writers David Kohn and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.

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