PANAMA CITY - Deputies are warning anyone who may have used illegal steroids created in Panama City Beach homes to consult a doctor because of the side effects known users are reporting.
An investigation by the Bay County Sheriff's Office led to the seizure last week of homemade steroids with a street value of approximately $1 million, said Capt. Faith Bell. Investigators believe the drugs were distributed at local fitness clubs and possibly worldwide over the Internet, and they're likely not as pure as consumers might have been led to believe.
"We were also hearing that people were getting sick … and we don't know if it's from the steroids itself or from the stuff in it," Bell said. "Of the ones we've talked to, they were all experiencing some of complications from it."
Many of the vials recovered were marked "sterile," though Bell doesn't believe that's the case. Some vials had residue coating the inside while others did not, and some vials had small pieces of debris floating inside. The cook plate deputies seized appeared anything but sterile.
Bell said the operation was "very primitive," and urged anyone who might have used the steroids to see a doctor. Side effects Bell said she is aware of include chest pain and coughing.
Garret George, 23, Mitchell Hardy, 29, and Christopher Gipson, 21, have all been arrested on possession charges, and George faces a charge for manufacturing controlled substances. The "labs" were operational at least six months, Bell said. None of the men arrested have any medical training or background that Bell was aware of.
Deputies are continuing to investigate with the help of federal agents, and additional arrests are expected, Bell said.
Non-medical use of anabolic steroids, the type of performance enhancing steroids synonymous with bodybuilders, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, are dangerous as is, said University of Florida pharmacy professor Paul Doering. But when the steroids have been created outside of a lab setting, users are playing "Russian roulette," and could be at risk of anything from infection to overdose.
"These drugs are dangerous enough in the hands of smart people," Doering said. "The good news is these are injected into the muscle and not the vain; the bad news is it's injected into the muscle."
Dr. Carlon Colker is the author of "Extreme Muscle Enhancement" and a physician in Connecticut; part of his practice includes treating men who have used steroids without a legitimate medical purpose. He said the use of anabolic steroids has become "profoundly common" among bodybuilders regardless of whether they're competitive.
"The designer, or 'garage-made'-steroids are of particular concern," Colker said. "The side effects we don't know … which is the scary part of it."
"Weekend alchemists," as Colker referred to untrained steroid cooks, create their product in uncontrolled settings, potentially introducing unknown substances. The product is then sold on a "huge black market" without any testing or quality control.
"You can unload this stuff as easily as painkillers," Colker said.
Doering was careful not to call the process George, Hardy and Gipson were allegedly using manufacturing. It would be more accurate to call it compounding, basically converting materials from powdered form to liquid, he said. He said China is the primary source for powdered steroids, and that he's never seen an illegal steroid compounding operation that didn't at least have someone with a medical background involved.
"I'm just flabbergasted that that kind of thing goes on," Doering said. "I would urge those receiving these compounds to cease and desist."
Side effects from anabolic steroids manufactured in a laboratory setting can include heart problems, the development of female breast tissue in male users, increased cholesterol levels, liver failure or cancer of the liver if the drugs are ingested orally, and of course, sterility, Colker said.Â