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Death of athletes from
natural causes?    
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By Mark Zovak

[DEC. 12, 2003]  LEHIGHTON, Pa. -- The death of two football players in Pennsylvania in a five-month time period doesn't seem to be alarming anyone. At the high school level 16-year-old Dan Gorczyk from the Scranton Prep football team died in August. This young man collapsed at football practice, and the Lackawanna County coroner's office ruled the cause of death to be electrical cardiac dysfunction.

The college level recently saw Ricky Lannetti, a 21-year-old college football player from Lycoming College, die on Dec. 6 from kidney failure. Both deaths seemed to be from natural causes, according to the coroners of Lackawanna and Lycoming counties. Both of these young athletes passed physicals and were in great condition to play football. No one seemed to question why they died in the prime of their lives.

Charles Fricke, coroner of Logan County, Ill., does question these types of deaths. He states: "Creatine and ephedra products have been linked to injuries and deaths. Without a full toxicology screen, no one will ever know what is killing our young athletes. We need to insist coroners and their pathologists screen for such drugs. Ephedra goes through the blood stream rather rapidly, and you may need to test the urine, tissue muscle or bone marrow. This takes extra money and time, but it is worth it to be thorough and do a professional job on behalf of your community. It is easy to label a death as heat stroke, myocardial infarct, etc. However, what causes a perfectly healthy athlete to die after taking related dietary supplements or muscle builders? Will we be a part of the solution, or a part of the problem?"

Fricke has testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management and Restructuring on the effects of ephedra and ephedrine. His testimony was related to the death of Sean Riggins, a 16-year-old football player from Lincoln Community High School in Illinois. Fricke visited the high school with Lincoln city detectives and started interviewing school officials, coaches and players. There he would find the lead he was hoping for, but critical information arrived in the mail to his office. Sean's fellow teammates wrote letters stating that they were using ephedra (Yellow Jackets) that they bought at a local store. The product was labeled as a dietary supplement and high energizer containing 25 milligrams ephedra and 300 milligrams of caffeine.

Fricke stated, "Sean's toxicology test revealed lidocaine in the blood, most likely related to cardiopulmonary resuscitation. No other drugs or medications were detected in the blood."

Fricke tested urine, tissue muscle and bone marrow. He reported: "The test results revealed creatine kinase (CK), which is normally 38 to 174. Sean Riggins had a CK level of 3,500. His LD (liver enzyme that is released during cardiac arrest) has a normal range of 91 to 180. Sean Riggins had a LD level of 785. His troponin (enzyme specific to the heart muscle) was 100; normal is .04 and heart attack range is 3 to 6. The (troponin) is a better marker than CK."


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Coroner Fricke found the cause of death of Sean Riggins to be acute myocardial infarction due to vasoconstrictive properties. No other anatomic or structural abnormality of coronary arteries sufficient to cause myocardial infarction was identified during autopsy. There were no atherosclerotic plaques or acute thrombosis in the coronary arteries. No other drugs, such as cocaine, which could cause vasospasm of the coronary arteries, were detected in the blood or urine.

Ephedra stimulates the central nervous system and increases heart rate while constricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure. The state of Illinois has banned the sale of ephedra. Fricke could have ruled the death myocardial infarction, but he didn't.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has banned ephedra and ephedrine. However, the PIAA has no enforcement or penalties for offending schools. They also lack a testing plan to detect ephedra and ephedrine use. Currently, they leave it to the schools to punish the offending athlete.

This is like letting a robber set his own punishment.

When asked why schools are allowed to determine punishment, Melissa Mertz of the PIAA replied, "We have done it this way for 95 years."

Times have changed, and so should their rules.

The federal government deregulated dietary supplements in 1994, and the deaths have been adding up. Unfortunately, it's too late to punish dead children.

Currently, the PIAA bans ephedra and ephedrine; the NCAA bans ephedra and ephedrine, anabolic steroids, and 100 other substances. Creatine is not a banned dietary supplement by either association. Creatine primarily affects the liver and kidneys. The NCAA has a testing plan in place.

For more information, see the following websites:

[Mark Zovak]

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