TOXINS AND YOUR GOOD HEALTH
by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
is Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and
Society. He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on Montreal's CJAD and has
appeared hundreds of times on The Discovery Channel, CTV, CBC,
TV Ontario and Global Television. Dr. Schwarcz also writes a newspaper
column entitled The Right Chemistry and has authored four best-sellers,
Radar, Hula Hoops and Playful Pigs, The
Genie in the Bottle, That's The way The Cookie Crumbles,
and Dr. Joe And What You Didn’t Know..
remember it well. The Olympics, Squaw Valley, 1960. The final
game of the hockey tournament featured the U.S against Czechoslovakia.
Incredibly, the Americans had knocked off the favored Canadians
and the Russians and now only the Czechs stood between them and
a gold medal. But going into the third period, the group of unheralded
college players trailed the skilled Czechs by a score of 4-3.
That’s when Nikolai Sologubov, the Russians’ superb
defenseman waltzed into the American dressing room and suggested
that the players fortify themselves by inhaling some extra oxygen
from tanks. His motive? If the Americans won, the Russians would
end up with the bronze medal, if they lost, they would be going
home empty-handed. Amazingly, the Americans scored six times in
the third period for their first “miracle on ice!”
Was the extra oxygen responsible?
recall, the next day the newspapers were filled with stories about
the ingenuity of the oxygen boost. Nobody suggested that this
was in any way unfair. Performance enhancement by means other
than training was not yet a big issue, even though “doping”
in all likelihood had tainted the Olympics since 1936. Just a
year earlier German scientists had isolated the male sex hormone
testosterone and had shown that it increased muscle mass and aggression.
There is little doubt that German athletes used it in the 1936
Berlin Olympics along with amphetamines, stimulants which had
been shown to ward off fatigue. By 1955 various analogues of testosterone,
collectively referred to as “anabolic steroids,” had
been synthesized and found their way into the bodies of athletes
clamouring for glory. It is hard to know how extensive such doping
was back in those days because urine tests for steroids were not
introduced until 1973. Only in 1975 did the world’s governing
sport bodies officially ban the use of anabolic steroids. That
of course didn’t mean these drugs were not being used. Detection
techniques were relatively primitive and as long as athletes didn’t
use steroids just prior to competition, they got away with it.
during the Montreal Olympics of 1976 marveling at the physique
of East German swimmer Kornelia Ender who took home an unprecedented
four gold medals. She was built more like a man and even had an
unusually deep voice. Steroids? Probably. Then in 1988 the lid
was blown off when Ben Johnson was caught cheating with stanozolol,
an anabolic steroid, in the 100 meters, one of the Olympics’
prime events. Since then we have looked warily on the Olympic
motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” or “faster,
higher, stronger” and have asked the question “with
what?” It seems we have come a very long way since those
American boys inhaled some extra oxygen. Now we ask if athletes
have used growth hormone to bulk up, insulin to boost the body’s
supply of the crucial muscle fuel, glycogen, or have injected
themselves with erythropoietin (EPO) to increase their production
of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
need for EPO? Why not just inhale some extra oxygen? Simple. It
doesn’t work! The romanticized story of the American victory
at Squaw Valley notwithstanding, red blood cells are already saturated
with oxygen and inhaling extra gas will be on no help. This was
clearly shown in a landmark paper in the Journal of the American
Medical Association in 1989. Researchers studied professional
soccer players who breathed either room air or pure oxygen in
a double blind fashion before a period of exercise. There was
no difference in performance and the subjects were unable to identify
which gas they had inhaled.
To increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, the number
of red blood cells needs to be increased. There are several ways
to do this. Training at high altitude, where the air contains
less oxygen, stimulates the body to produce more red blood cells.
Living in dorms where nitrogen-rich air is pumped in to simulate
the oxygen concentration of air at high altitude also works. Then
there are the short cuts. Like “blood doping.” Athletes
withdraw a couple of pints of blood and reinfuse this months later
before a major competition to increase their red blood cell count.
Such blood doping is illegal and is detectible. Which is why athletes
began to use EPO, a hormone synthesized by the kidneys that sends
a signal to the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. EPO can
be made via recombinant DNA technology and is widely used to treat
anemia stemming from kidney disease, chemotherapy or blood loss.
It didn’t take long for athletes to figure out that they
could also avail themselves of this technology to boost performance.
Neither did it take long for problems to crop up. Too many red
blood cells increase the density of the blood, which in turn can
lead to heart attacks or strokes. When the deaths of over a dozen
cyclists were associated with the use of EPO in the early 1990s,
the Olympic Committee banned the drug. The problem though was
that injected EPO was difficult to detect and only recently have
reliable tests become available.
athletes may already be a step ahead. Pharmaceutical companies
are working on a way to treat kidney patients by introducing the
gene that codes for the production of EPO. Animal experiments
are already underway. And I’m quite sure that there are
athletes out there quite willing to become human guinea pigs.
By the way, about those six American goals against the Czechs
in the third period back in 1960? None of the four players who
did the scoring had inhaled any extra oxygen! Natural adrenalin
was the chemical at work.