It would appear that for once, athletes have correctly pinned the blame of failed drug tests on an adulterated supplement. So often they accuse a sports supplement, but rarely do they publicly name the manufacturer or brand and show the adulteration via independent testing.
The five pro football athletes recently suspended for four games by NFL officials after testing positive for the banned diuretic bumetanide, which has been known to mask steroids in drug testing. The athletes countered they had taken StarCaps, an over-the-counter (OTC) weight-loss supplement that must have been tainted. So we go to the old advice: professional athletes should know what they put into their bodies. Well, the situation clouds a bit here, because it appears the product might actually have contained the banned substance without labeling it amongst the product's ingredients.
More than a year ago, a third-party lab in Tennessee, Aegis Sciences Corp, confirmed the presence of bumetanide in StarCaps and advised pro athletes risked not just failed drug tests but also future health problems based on potential dehydration (from unknowingly taking a diuretic).
A study report published in a late 2007 issue of the Journal of Analytical Toxicology also confirmed the presence of bumetanide in StarCaps. The investigation was initiated by the World Doping Agency.
There is also speculation the NFL knew a positive test for one player in 2006 was connected to bumetanide in StarCaps.
So, how then did players a year later get popped for taking this supplement? I still think players are a bit responsible here. Adulterated supplements certainly reflect poorly on the supplement market, but there are some supplements approved for use by NFL players. The NSF International partnership with the NFL and its players' association has approved certified-safe supplements from EAS. Other companies like Pharmanex have had products certified for athletes (including the Salt Lake Olympic Games).
Can more be done? Yes, more should be done. More products and brands should be approved by partnerships such as NSF-NFL. It's appalling that players have to choose between one or two brands, while there are surely many other companies out there that produce unadulterated products.
Maybe they feel the limited number of world class athletes doesn't merit the effort to get approved by the NFL, Olympics or various sporting authorities, but I argue cases such as the StarCaps-NFL fiasco do major damage to the supplement industry's reputation. The NFL is a big deal in the United States, and news like this has an accordingly big impact. Even the cases in which failed tests are erroneously blamed on supplements hurt, as a case like StarCaps makes people wonder if other players aren't victims of adulterated supplements.
That said, it still amazes me that millionaire athletes don't spring a few thousand to have everything they consume tested, especially supplements. The rapid-weight-loss products that hit the market every other day, especially internet-only products, may be desirable to bigger athletes, especially the large linemen involved in the latest NFL ban, but it pays to have products tested. This is especially important for any products in the weight management market—StarCaps was marketed to "metabolize protein, eliminate bloat, and detoxify your system."
As for StarCaps, the company behind the product, Balanced Health Products, New York, faces lawsuits from some of the players involved and has recently recalled its product, under the eyes of FDA. The company's Web site has only its home page available, on which it says it is investigating the problem and has suspended shipments until further notice. In a press release, the company said only certain lots of the product were being voluntarily recalled due to possible contamination it believes occurred in its raw material production facility in Lima, Peru.
I anxiously await further developments of this case. Will StarCaps prove the adulteration was an extraordinary accident company execs knew nothing about, or will this prove to be a case of another weight-loss product purposefully tainted with a drug?