Sean Riggins was a healthy, athletic 16-year-old who enjoyed football and wrestling at his high school in Lincoln, Ill. He played hockey as a first-grader in Peoria and acquired a shelf full of trophies from Tae Kwon Do competitions.
But on Sept. 2, Sean sat on the bench instead of joining his football team on the field. He complained of an upset stomach and headache. The next day, a doctor said he had bronchitis, gave him an antibiotic and sent him home. Within hours, he began having seizures and stopped breathing.
He died of what doctors said was a heart attack.
“How does a 16-year-old boy that active die of a heart attack?” his father, Kevin Riggins, recalls thinking even as he grieved.
“Sean didn’t smoke. He was passionate against taking drugs,” Riggins testified Tuesday at a Senate Government Affairs subcommittee hearing.
But an autopsy and interviews with his friends led the coroner to conclude Sean died from taking Yellow Jackets, an unregulated dietary supplement containing the herbal stimulant ephedra as well as a kola nut extract containing caffeine. The combination causes rapid heartbeat, an increase in blood pressure and a constricting of blood vessels.
Seated near photos of their only child, Kevin and Debbie Riggins urged the federal government to block sales of products containing ephedra.
They were alarmed to find out how many of Sean’s friends swallowed the pills they bought, three for $1.50, at the local convenience store or gas station. The teens took them to improve their athletic performance, gain energy, lose weight or get “a buzz.”
Sean and many other wrestling team members began taking the pills last winter.
Sean’s parents, along with Logan County Coroner Charles Fricke, say they are planning to talk about the dangers of such dietary supplements in schools in central Illinois including Lincoln, Springfield and Peoria.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chaired the hearing, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports link ephedra to 81 deaths and 1,400 incidents of heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
On Tuesday, an FDA official said the agency has requested a search warrant to inspect the New Jersey facilities of NVE Pharmaceuticals, which makes Yellow Jackets. On Monday, the FDA banned imports of the product from a company in the Netherlands.
Lester Crawford, the FDA’s deputy commissioner, said the agency probably would try to ban the sale of the product – either because it was marketed as an alternative to street drugs or because of its composition.
The difficulty is that a 1994 law passed by Congress exempted such “dietary supplements” from pre-market testing. It placed the burden on the government to prove such products are unsafe.
In July, Durbin had called on the FDA to ban sales of products containing ephedra but received no response.
Ronald Davis of the American Medical Association said the organization has recommended pulling products containing ephedra from the market. It’s been banned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Durbin said NVE Pharmaceuticals declined an invitation to attend Tuesday’s hearing.
But another manufacturer, Metabolife International Inc. of San Diego, said its products are safe when used by adults according to directions. The firm is under investigation by the Justice Department for claiming it had received no reports of adverse health effects related to use of its product.
However, a joint House-Senate committee reviewed records undercutting that claim.
Metabolife recently turned over records showing 2,000 telephone complaints from consumers of significant adverse reactions to its products, Durbin said. They included three deaths, 20 heart attacks, 24 strokes, 40 seizures and 465 incidents of chest pain.
Lanny Davis, an attorney for Metabolife, criticized the committee’s review for relying on what he called “unsubstantiated” telephone reports.