Use of human growth hormones (HGH) among U.S. teens has doubled in the past year, according to a study released by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids on Wednesday, raising questions about the lack of effective regulation of the substance among parents, coaches, and school administrators.
“It’s what you get when you combine aggressive promotion from for-profit companies with a vulnerable target — kids who want a quick fix and don’t care about health risk,” Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told the Associated Press. “It’s a very easy sell, unfortunately.”
HGH is a hormone that stimulates growth and cell reproduction and regeneration in humans by raising the concentration of glucose and fatty acid cells and triggering production of IGF-1, an insulin-like hormone. Since the development of synthetic HGH in the 1980s, doctors across the United States have prescribed the hormone to treat childhood growth problems.
The dearth of research about HGH’s long-term effects, however, prompted the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to limit HGH’s use to five types of human growth disorders, including Turner’s Syndrome. The International Olympic Committee and National Collegiate Athletics Association also banned HGH in the early 1980s upon discovering that athletes often abused it to enhance their performance.
But the recent Partnership for Drug-Free Kids study points to the lack of similar regulations in high school sports to discourage young athletes from using HGH. A confidential survey administered to 3,075 high school students in 2013 found that nine percent of teen girls and 12 percent of teen boys reported using synthetic HGH for reasons that included increasing muscle mass and speed and improving appearance. Steroid use among teens also increased by two percentage points, according to the survey.
This is a public health issue that extends beyond athletes’ abuse of performance enhancing substances. Despite HGH’s perceived health risks — which, according to the Mayo Clinic, include stunted growth, acne, and liver damage — the FDA has not stopped the use of hormones in beef cattle and breast milk, products that millions of Americans consume daily. Meat and dairy manufacturers often use natural and synthetic versions of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone to increase milk production in cattle and increase the speed with which they grow.
While the FDA contends that the consumption of processed foods does not cause cancer, research in recent years suggests otherwise. For example, a study published in an issue of BMC Magazine last year found that ingesting hormone-induced red meat — including bacon, ham, salami, and sausage — increased one’s likelihood of developing heart disease by 72 percent and cancer by 11 percent. Another 2013 study by scientists at Kaiser Permanente linked the estrogen found in high-fat cow milk to early puberty in girls in addition to breast, prostate, endometrial, and ovarian cancers.
Little has happened more than 30 years since the FDA first promised changes to regulations, even as European countries placed bans on American-produced meats and local farms rose in popularity as alternative food sources. Fortunately, some change seems to be on the horizon. The FDA announced plans last year to phase out the use of growth-inducing antibiotics in animal feed and increasing oversight of the remaining use of such drugs.
When it comes to teens, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids also suggests that the FDA could do more to ensure that hormone supplements are regulated as vigorously as prescription and over-the-counter drugs. “These are not products that assure safety and efficacy. Prescription and over-the-counter medicines must go through rigorous testing to be proven safe before being sold to the public, but supplement products appear on store shelves without regulation from the Food and Drug Administration and must actually be proven unsafe before being removed from sale,” the group’s president, Steve Pasierb, said in a statement. “That creates a false perception of safety driving impressionable teens to risk their health with potentially dangerous products that are untested.”