Food and Drug Administration investigators are looking into the possible link between ephedra and the death of a Baltimore Orioles pitcher, says the agency's chief, who worries the dietary supplement may prove particularly risky for athletes.
Determining ephedra's danger and whether to heed calls to ban sales are priorities, FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.
Ephedra, an herb commonly used for weight loss and body building, increases metabolic rate and speeds the heart rate, he noted. Add strenuous activity, and "sports use is one area where I have got some particular concerns," McClellan said.
McClellan's boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, convened a meeting of health officials to discuss ephedra on Wednesday. Asked what he thought of the herb, Thompson told reporters: "I wouldn't use it, would you?"
The comments came after a Florida medical examiner said Monday's heatstroke death of Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler, 23, may have been linked to an ephedra-containing supplement found in his locker.
Toxicology tests to determine whether ephedrine, the herb's active ingredient, was in Bechler's body will not be available for at least two weeks. But Broward County, Fla., medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper, who interviewed the player's family and Orioles officials, said he was told Bechler took three pills of Xenadrine RFA-1 each morning.
Perper urged baseball officials to ban use of the supplement, an action already taken by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Xenadrine's maker, Cytodine Technologies, said in a statement that two capsules a day is the recommended dose and that studies show the product is safe when used as directed.
But ephedra long has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and other serious side effects -- even at recommended doses and particularly if users have underlying heart trouble or certain other ailments.
The FDA has reports of at least 100 deaths linked to use of the herbal supplements. A study published this month found U.S. poison control centers reported 1,178 side effects among ephedra users last year alone, and critics have urged FDA to ban the pills.
Now Bechler's death is focusing public attention on ephedra again.
Within a month, the FDA expects to receive a review of ephedra's risks from the Rand Corp., hired to take an independent look.
Also, FDA investigators are talking with the Florida medical examiner and will scrutinize the baseball player's toxicology tests, McClellan said.
"We are going to get the reports, look at all this evidence and take appropriate action quickly," McClellan said. "If there is a health risk, we need to be on top of it," adding that sports use may ultimately prove the area of most concern.
Is a ban possible? "That's something we definitely are considering," he said.
Because ephedra is an herb, federal law allows over-the-counter sales with little oversight to ensure safety. Only if the FDA proves a clear danger to public health can it curb sales. Manufacturers blocked an FDA attempt to restrict sales of certain doses four years ago by arguing the agency did not have enough proof.
The Ephedra Education Council, an industry funded group, did not return calls seeking comment. Calling ephedra an important way to battle obesity, some manufacturers have been lobbying Thompson to settle the controversy by ordering labels on ephedra that set dose limits and urge consumers to consult a doctor before taking it.