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Illinois Man On Mission To Ban Ephedra Nationwide

His son’s death helped lead to sales law in state

Sep 3, 2003 | The News-Press

Kevin Riggins is on a crusade, one he hopes will make the herbal supplement ephedra illegal in the United States.

“It’s out there,” Riggins said. “People are going to use it, and there are going to be more deaths from it.

“It has to be gone.”

Ephedra leads to increases in metabolism and in heart rate. According to doctors, ephedra may impair the body’s ability to cool itself, making one more prone to heat-related illnesses.

In the case of Sean Riggins, Kevin’s son, ephedra may have played a role in the 16-year-old’s death last September.

Sean Riggins, who his father described as physically fit and with no prior health problems, picked up a packet of pills that contained ephedra at a convenience store near his home in Illinois.

Sean Riggins later died at a high school football practice from heatstroke.

“I’m absolutely positive of that,” Kevin Riggins said of ephedra causing his son’s death. “He saw this stuff at the store. He thought it was going to boost his energy and enhance his performance.

“He was a healthy, healthy young man,” he said. “When he’s not playing a sport, which is most of the year, he was out and active. He was in the peak of condition. The peak of health.”

Kevin Riggins, 38, caught the attention of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Blagojevich already knew a little about ephedra’s potential dangers after Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler died from heatstroke — and with ephedra in his body after a workout on Aug. 3, 2001.

On May 25, Blagojevich signed into Illinois law Senate Bill 1418, making Illinois the first and so far only — state to ban ephedra sales.

Violating the law is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $20,000 fine.

“Our law in Illinois is simply a sale ban,” Riggins said. “You cannot sell this in the state. Enforcement for that is easy enough.”

But Riggins, a factory worker at Bridgestone Firestone, is just getting started with his fight to ban ephedra nationwide.

“I’m not finished yet,” he said. “Not by a long shot.

“My goal: No. 1, we’re going to get ephedra off the streets in the entire country,” Riggins said. “My other goal is, we’re going to get some regulations for these companies so they can’t just sell any kind of crap.

“Let’s hold them to the same standards as any other over-the-counter drug company,” he added.

But Riggins won’t have an easy road.

Not all physicians agree that ephedra causes death, a fact that will fall in the ephedra companies’ favor when the legal machines start rolling.

After Baltimore Orioles minor-league pitcher Steve Bechler died from heatstroke on Feb. 17, autopsies showed he had ephedra in his system.

But Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist who assessed the autopsy, said: “Ephedra had nothing to do with his death.”

“What I know is that nobody has ever died of heatstroke from taking ephedra,” said Baden, who was the chief medical examiner in New York City in 1978-79 and now has a private practice.

Baden was once the chairman of the forensic pathology panel of the U.S. Congress select committee on assassinations that investigated the deaths of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He is featured on an HBO documentary show called “Autopsy.”

“I addressed the issue with Mr. Bechler’s death,” Baden said. “He died of heatstroke. But it was due to obesity and pre-existing heart disease, liver disease and lack of proper medical supervision.”

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