This story has been corrected
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A drug-testing lab in Tennessee confirmed more than a year ago that StarCaps, the over-the-counter weight-loss pill at the center of five NFL player suspensions, contained the banned diuretic Bumetanide, and the toxicologist in charge said athletes using it put themselves at risk of more than just a positive drug test.
"Bumetanide is a potent diuretic for an athlete or someone in a situation where they might become dehydrated," David Black told The Associated Press. "They'd be taking a diuretic without the knowledge of it. That could lead to serious health considerations. That could lead to electrolyte abnormalities, cardiovascular collapse, cardiac arrhythmias, heart attack, stroke and death."
Black, who helped set up and coordinate the NFL's original steroid testing program with then-commissioner Pete Rozelle in the late 1980s, tested StarCaps in 2007 at the request of a professional athlete who tested positive for it. Black would not identify the player.
"It took us a couple of PhDs and a $300,000 piece of equipment to verify that Bumetanide was contained in StarCaps," he said. "How is somebody supposed to know buying it off the shelf or off the Internet what it really contains? We spent an enormous amount of resources trying to understand this product."
Black credited the World Anti-Doping Agency with first confirming Bumetanide was in StarCaps and reporting those findings in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology in the November/December 2007 issue.
The problem? Athletes likely don't read such journals.
The demand for that kind of information has business booming for Black's company, Aegis Sciences Corp, located around the corner from the Tennessee Titans' headquarters in a Nashville business park.
It started in 1986 as a sports doping lab after a steroids scandal on the football team had Vanderbilt University wanting to test all of its athletes. The toxicologist didn't want to leave town when the lab closed, so he took it private in 1990 and expanded testing for doctors tracking if patients take their pain medication, employers protecting themselves from employees using drugs, forensic work and sports.
Black estimates he has helped exonerate more than 50 athletes, including Olympic sprinter Butch Reynolds in the early 1990s, and his lab conducts tests for about 80 Division I-A universities and NASCAR. His work with the NFL ended in 1990 when then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue moved testing to a lab approved by the IOC and named Dr. John Lombardo as the league's adviser on steroids.
Business is so good Black can't meet the demand, despite expanding into a 35,000-square foot building this summer. He has 130 employees, including 65 drug testers, running an average of 3,000 tests each week with fees ranging from as low as $30 to $300 per test. He said he expects business to expand by up to 50 percent next year despite the economy.
With researchers developing new medicines daily to treat diseases, Black said there's always something new for athletes trying to find an edge to make themselves better.
"So we always will be one step behind," Black said of the cheaters.
Black confirmed his lab was involved before the news broke in October that up to eight NFL players had tested positive. But he said he could not discuss the StarCaps cases directly or in any detail because of his lab's involvement with NFL players in Bumetanide-related issues.
The five players tested positive in training camp in July and August for the banned diuretic Bumetanide, which can be used as a masking agent for steroids. Diuretics are also used to quickly shed weight. The drug was in the dietary supplement StarCaps even though the label did not list the diuretic as an ingredient.
"It's not there by accident," Black said.
A federal judge last Friday blocked the NFL from suspending the players for violating the league's anti-doping policy while he studies the arguments.
The key issue in the case before the federal judge is whether the NFL had any specific obligation to notify players and the union that it had known since at least 2006 that the weight-loss supplement contained the banned diuretic. The NFL, which added StarCaps to its list of prohibited dietary supplement companies in December 2006, says the burden is on players to know what's going into their bodies.
The union had claimed Lombardo, in consultation with the league's attorneys, withheld critical information on StarCaps containing the banned diuretic.
NFL attorney Dan Nash argued Lombardo had made a professional decision to warn players in general about diuretics rather than specifically about StarCaps.
Atlanta's Grady Jackson, identified in media reports as a player who also tested positive for Bumetanide, filed suit against StarCaps in Alameda County Superior Court in California last month, seeking restitution for any lost salary and damages for "false advertising and unfair business practices."