Baseball executives, players, and lawmakers clashed Thursday on whether anabolic steroid (search) abuse is a significant problem in the major leagues.

But there’s no doubt that many kid athletes are emulating their professional heroes. And it turns out that anabolic steroids are pretty easy to get.

Some kids are trying to gain a physical edge at any cost. Others may simply crave the more athletic and muscular physique that eludes so many boys and girls.

As many as one in 29 high school seniors and half a million kids in all had tried anabolic steroids without a doctor’s guidance in 2004, according to figures released by the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A staggering 40 percent of high school students in the most recent National Household Survey on drug abuse said that anabolic steroids are “easy” to get.

From the Internet to the Border

A simple Google (search) search for the terms “buy anabolic steroids” yields more than 2.8 million hits, as well as featured advertisements including one offering customers the chance to “break through your natural limitations, and build a freaky, extremely muscular physique.”

There is no way to know how many of the sites offer anabolic steroids as opposed to related precursors or simple placebo scams. But the sites reflect what some officials and experts say is a huge international market that promises a ready supply to almost anyone who seeks the drugs.

“There’s just so much stuff coming into the country that it’s difficult to police,” says Richard Cleland, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission’s division of advertising practices.

It’s Still Drug Dealing

Gary I. Wadler, an expert who testified at the baseball hearings Thursday, warns that anabolic steroid use often escapes the stigma suffered by other illegal drugs such as heroine and cocaine. Anabolic steroid users are likely to like the drugs’ effects on their bodies, a feeling that is unwittingly reinforced by parents and peers who notice more confidence and better performance on the playing field.

The lack of stigma can make anabolic steroid sellers more like welcome fixtures in gyms than shady sellers who are viewed as criminals.

“Any way you cut it this is drug dealing. But unfortunately it’s an issue. Not only does the individual like what they’re seeing, but others, unwittingly, like it as well,” he tells WebMD.

Anabolic steroids remain legal when used for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription. But their legitimate use for most disorders has given way to newer drugs. Still, Wadler says that diversion from legitimate medical practices is a relatively small source of illegal anabolic steroids.

“I think most of it these days comes from other countries,” he says.

Supply ‘Virtually Unlimited’

Anabolic steroids remain unregulated in most other countries, including Mexico, where they can be readily purchased without a prescription.

Raymond J. Giribaldi, told lawmakers Thursday that his son Rob traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, from the family’s home in San Diego to obtain the anabolic steroids he used before committing suicide while in the throes of a severe post-anabolic steroid depression.

Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy director of the office of diversion control at the Drug Enforcement Administration warned the House Judiciary Committee in March 2004 that the supply of anabolic steroids entering the U.S. was “virtually unlimited.”

Horse Hormones for Humans

Part of the problem for legal authorities is the vast variety of anabolic steroids and anabolic steroid-like products available. Literally dozens of anabolic steroids are manufactured, in addition to an untold number of precursors of anabolic steroids and other hormones, only some of which are illegal in the U.S.

Wide grey areas between which compounds are legal and which are not give sellers ample room to market products to uneducated consumers.

Drug tests for years have revealed athletes taking Equipoise and Winstrol V, two anabolic steroids made not for humans, but for horses and other livestock, Wadler says.

Officials tracking claims related to legal human growth hormone precursors on the Internet have found them almost too numerous to count, Cleland says.

“The fact is no one has a handle on how much of this stuff their really is,” he says.

Signs to Watch Out For

It’s oftentimes hard for parents to believe their kid might be using anabolic steroids. And it’s sometimes even harder to tell of they’re using them.

But there are signs you can look for. If your child has one or more of the following warning signs, he or she may be abusing steroids:

For Guys:

—Baldness

—Development of breasts Impotence

For Girls:

—Growth of facial hair

—Deepened voice

—Breast reduction

For Both:

—Jaundice (yellowing of the skin)

—Swelling of feet or ankles

—Aching joints

—Bad breath

—Mood swings

—Nervousness

—Trembling

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Gary I. Wadler, professor of medicine, New York University ;and advisor, World Anti Doping Agency. Richard Cleland, assistant director, division of advertising practices, Federal Trade Commission. Raymond J. Giribaldi, Petaluma, Calif. Joseph T. Rannazzisi, deputy director, office of diversion control, Drug Enforcement Administration. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and SAMHSA’s National Clearing House for Alcohol & Drug Information.