The death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler should be a call to action for the Food and Drug Administration and Major League Baseball. Bechler, 23, died of heat stroke after working out at the team’s spring training facilities in Fort Lauderdale, and the medical examiner discovered that Bechler had been using a dietary supplement containing ephedra.
This isn’t the first death linked to ephedra, which is found in supplements popular with dieters, such as Metabolife, Dexatrim and Xenadrine (the brand Bechler was using). Four football players have died after taking ephedra, including Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer. Following Stringer’s death, the NFL banned the substance, joining the NCAA and International Olympic Committee. Even the U.S. military has removed ephedra products from its commissaries.
Bechler had other medical conditions, including borderline high blood pressure and liver abnormalities, that would have made his use of ephedra even more risky. Ephedra is another name for the plant ma huang and contains the stimulant ephedrine, which reportedly burns calories and boosts energy.
Yet ephedrine causes blood vessels to constrict, which can trap body heat and raise the threat of heat stroke. A recent medical study found that while ephedra accounts for less than 1 percent of herbal supplement sales, it is responsible for 64 percent of adverse reactions. The threat is clear. But while Major League Baseball will begin testing players for steroid use this year, it puts no limits on ephedra and other supplements.
Even if baseball wises up, that still leaves millions of American consumers, including teenagers, at risk. The FDA is charged with protecting the public from dangerous supplements, but it has been a reluctant regulator. In 1995, the FDA reported that it had received more than 800 reports of “adverse events” associated with the use of ephedrine. “The events ranged from episodes of high blood pressure, heart rate irregularities, insomnia, nervousness, tremors and headaches to seizures, heart attacks, strokes and death.”
That was eight years ago. FDA officials point out that the law requires the agency to prove scientifically that a product is unsafe before it can act. Such a study is under way. Meanwhile, more deaths are linked to products containing ephedra.