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California and the West

Death of 15-Year-Old Fuels Concern Over 'Energy Pills'

Health: Food supplement is not regulated as a drug despite its chemical similarity to methamphetamine.

April 16, 1998|STEVE CHAWKINS and DAWN HOBBS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FILLMORE — When Rosanna Porras took the energy booster called Ripped Fuel before her soccer practice last week, she was ingesting pills whose key ingredient is described by one drug expert as "an atom away" from illegal methamphetamine.

Rosanna, a 15-year-old class president at Fillmore High School, collapsed during the practice and died three days later.

Her family and doctors are blaming the pills and lax government regulation. Meanwhile, some health professionals contend that the tragedy underscores the risks that can lurk in voguish, attractively packaged natural remedies.

Ephedrine, the main component of Ripped Fuel, is a close chemical cousin of the stimulant methamphetamine and has been used to add bulk to cocaine for sale on the street. Hundreds of small meth labs in Southern California have used the ephedrine found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medications as a raw material, according to police.

"Methamphetamine is basically just ephedrine minus an oxygen atom," said Jackie Long, a special agent for the California Department of Justice. Of 946 labs raided last year, 75% procured their ephedrine at a local drugstore, he said.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 17, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
'Energy pills'--A story in Thursday's Times on the death of a Fillmore girl overstated the amount of the substance ephedrine found in the herbal supplement Ripped Fuel. Two tablets contain 20 milligrams of ephedra alkaloids, compared with the 60 milligrams of pseudoephedrine hydrochloride found in two capsules of Sudafed.

The problem has become so widespread that Chino and San Bernardino County have limited the amount of certain cold medicines that can be purchased at one time. Riverside, Orange County and San Diego counties are considering similar measures. "We've also been working with some of the large retailers," said Sharon Carter, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency. "If someone is buying up cases of the stuff, we get a heads-up that there's something going on here more than your average household cold."

Yet Rosanna, a well-liked girl who was active in school sports, never took drugs, friends and family members said.

And, in fact, Ripped Fuel is not regulated as a drug. Despite their potent contents--a recommended two-pill dose carries five times more ephedrine than Sudafed--the pills are marketed as food supplements, to the dismay of some health educators.

"It's a dangerous substance and shouldn't be sold over the counter," said William G. Jarvis, a Loma Linda Medical School professor of education who also directs the National Council Against Health Fraud.

Smaller doses of ephedrine have a legitimate use in cold medications, Jarvis acknowledged. But he said overdoses can lead to extremely high blood pressure, heart attacks, seizures and strokes--all dangers when young people try to boost athletic performance or go after ephedrine-induced highs with products such as Herbal Ecstasy.

Ripped Fuel is made from an herb the Chinese call ma huang, known here as ephedra. It has been used for thousands of years to treat allergies and asthma and is also used in diet pills. In the 1970s, its stimulating qualities drew interest from young people searching for a new thrill.

"You could see ads for ephedra in the counterculture newspapers," Jarvis said. "What were street drugs 20 years ago are on the shelves of the health food stores today."

An official from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration went to the Porras house Tuesday to pick up Rosanna's medical records. The agency has received more than 800 reports of adverse health reactions to products containing ephedrine and has proposed new regulations to limit the ephedrine content of dietary supplement products.

Under a 1994 law, the agency must prove dietary supplements are harmful before it can regulate them.

Officials of Twinlab Inc., the Ronkonkoma, N.Y., company that makes Ripped Fuel, declined to comment Tuesday, saying that medical tests to determine the cause of Rosanna's death have not been completed.

The girl's father, Henry Porras, vowed to take the company to court if the tests indicate the pills were at fault.

"They really need to have a feeling for who their customer is and for the kids out there taking their stuff," Porras said. "They need to make sure what they're selling is safe. If we could get them to that point, then my daughter's death, I think I could live with the pain," he said, weeping.

Rosanna was rushed to Santa Paula Memorial Hospital after she collapsed April 6. On April 8, she was taken to Cottage Memorial Hospital in Santa Barbara, where she was pronounced brain-dead. She did not regain consciousness after her collapse.

Larry Gillespie, a deputy coroner in Santa Barbara County, said he suspects her death is linked to the pills.

"I think there is a connection," he said. "There seems to be a connection between ephedrine and sudden cardiac death, but we have just not substantiated it from a medical, legal perspective."

Studies of Rosanna's heart tissue should be completed this week and toxicological tests by the end of next week. Dr. Robert Dekkers pumped Rosanna's stomach when she arrived at the emergency room in Santa Paula. If no underlying health problems are found by the coroner, Dekkers also believes the pills might be implicated.

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