Hairy situation in steroid game

Updated: April 19, 2005, 9:46 PM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

Memo to memorabilia collectors: The smoking gun in the steroid wars might be sitting in your trophy case. That's right. You, too, can play the anti-doping game. All you need is a souvenir cap from your favorite under-suspicion slugger and a stray lock of his hair. Derrick Pounder will do the rest.

Pounder isn't a collector. He's not even a baseball fan. He teaches forensic pathology in Dundee, Scotland, where local tastes run toward snooker. But Pounder is sitting on the future of drug testing in sports – a way to detect steroids from hair. "It's quite effective," he says. "And the good thing is that the hair need not be new. We work with a hair that is quite a few years old."

Pounder made the discovery at a drug clinic near the University of Scotland in Dundee a few years back. While working on a test to detect cocaine and heroine, he noticed a bunch of bodybuilders in the clinic's basement. After being told that they were trying to kick steroids, he asked to include them in his research. What he found was that with minor changes, his hair test did a remarkable job revealing steroid use, too.

"In most cases, we were able to confirm all of the steroids that these men told us they had taken," he says.

Since steroids seep into the root of the hair at the moment of ingestion or injection, they stick around as the hair grows. At a growth rate of a centimeter a month, a short lock of hair could show steroid use over half a year. (Blood and urine tests go back weeks, at most.) Even better, hair does a good job storing steroids after it has fallen out. So a lock from  oh, say, 1998  would show what, if anything, its owner was taking at the time.

Of course, the more the hair he has, the more accurate he can make the test. "Ideally, you'd want a lock with twenty hairs," Pounder says. "But I could probably work with one." What if your favorite slugger is bald? No problem. "Chest and pubic hair are fine, too."

The technology is relatively straightforward, though it requires a $900,000 machine called a mass spectrometer that isn't exactly in every doctor's office. A hair is placed in a chamber that grinds it down and extracts what's inside. What's left is analyzed for known molecules. "The only trick," says Pounder, "is that you have to know what you're looking for."

Not everyone is convinced the test is ready for prime time. Don Catlin, the head of the Olympic Analysis Lab in Los Angeles, points out that hair picks up a lot of dirt. So a sample would have to be washed and washed, potentially washing away the steroids you're trying to find.

Then there's the issue of analyzing the steroids that you do find. Hair tests don't differentiate between natural testosterone and what is taken externally, raising the possibility of false positives. Urine tests solve the problem by measuring the ratio between testosterone and another natural hormone, epi-testosterone. (Anything higher than 4:1 is considered out of whack.) But there's no accepted way to find the ratio in hair yet. "I'm not saying that it can't work," Catlin adds. "I just think we're a few years away."

Still, that doesn't mean that Pounder's test is useless. Gary Wadler, a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, points out that it still is valuable for tracking synthetic steroids like Stanizol that aren't naturally found. "I think it has the potential to become a very useful tool for us," he says.

But there's a difference between Olympic inspectors collecting hair samples and running to your mantle to check out that souvenir cap. For one thing, if you find a strand, how do you know that your neighbor didn't sneak it on while you were getting beer? DNA testing can confirm the rightful owner, but not necessarily the time the hair was plucked.

As a professor with a lot of dead people to deal with, Pounder doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff. "Usually, the people I deal are the opposite of athletic," he says, chuckling drily.

But, when pressed, he supposes that a good sample could come from "cleaning up after someone gets a hair cut."

So forget the feds. It's barbers who hold the smoking gun.

Who knew?

Shaun Assael is a Senior Writer with ESPN The Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be contacted at shaun.assael@espn3.com.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"