I cleaned out my office a couple of weeks ago and threw away all the papers I’d been saving from the Mayfield situation. Figures.
Q: I thought NASCAR had a zero tolerance drug policy. What did it mean that Almendinger’s test was ‘over the threshold’?
A: A threshold can refer to two things.
First, there are some chemicals that we all have present in varying amounts, like testosterone. There’s a certain level that is acceptable and that level is different for men and for women. If someone is above threshold, it means that they have more than would be normal. The Olympics is struggling with this right now because some women have levels of testosterone that are much higher than the average woman. This may give them a significant advantage in some sports. Likewise, there’s a certain range of caffeine that might reasonably be expected to be found in your body. If you have more than that level, it indicates that you’re abusing caffeine.
The second use can refer to a test threshold. If there are five amphetamine molecules in 10 mL of urine, you’re not going to find them with any test. Likewise, identifying the precise molecule is difficult and it is sometimes possible that one molecule looks like another to the testing apparatus. Different types of testing equipment have different sensitivities. If you’re down around the limits of the equipment that’s being used, there’s another possibility for what ‘threshold’ means.
Phenylalanine is a common molecule found in energy drinks and a lot of other places: the breast milk of mammals, in protein-rich foods (dairy, seeds, nuts, poultry and fish) and in higher amounts in things like diet sodas, artificial sweeteners and energy drinks. Phenylalanine is a by-product of how your body breaks down the artificial sweetener aspartame.
Phenylalanine differs from amphetamine by a few atoms, as shown in the figure at right. Chemists use a shorthand – everywhere two lines join and there are no other atoms indicated, it means there’s a carbon atom and two hydrogen atoms there. It’s just such a common configuration that everyone got bored writing it all the time. It’s like using “$” instead of writing “dollars” all the time.
You may have heard that phenylalanine had the same backbone as common stimulants. I’ve highlighted the backbone in red on the top molecule. You can see that the carbon chain (the six-membered ring, plus the three horizontal lines) are the same. Phenylalanine has a C-O-O-H group where amphetamine has a C-H-H-H group).
You may have heard that phenylalanine can show up as a positive on a drug test for stimulants. It depends on the type of measurement used. A broad test like an immunoassay might confused the two, but the molecules have fundamentally very different weights. Phenylalanine has a molecular weight of 165.19 g/mole. Amphetamine has a molecular weight of 135.2084 g/mole. Methamphetamine has a molecular weight of 149.233 g/mole. I realize that sound s like a very small difference, but in chemical analysis terms, it’s a huge difference.
Q: Does a product label really tell you what’s in the product?
A: Great question. How much Vitamin C is in an orange? Depends on the size of the orange, how it was grown, how ripe it was when it was picked, etc. Natural things have inherent variations. If you have a prescription for a medicine, there is a certain level of precision required in manufacturing that medicine and the medicine goes through quality control tests to ensure that the right dosage is present and the medicine is not contaminated with some other medicine.
That only happens if the item is something that is regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Vitamins, nutritional supplements and energy drinks are not regulated by the FDA. Take a look at consumerlabs.com, which tests supplements and vitamins and see how much variation they found in very common supplements like fish oils. You might be especially interested in their comments on energy drinks. Supplements and other unregulated materials are often indicated by some disclaimer like “supports heart health” because the one area that the government does regulate these items is in how they can advertise.
In addition to natural variations, you don’t know what the factory making the product you’re taking was making before they started making your product. Some products will have a warning that they are made in a facility that also processes tree nuts. There’s no guarantee that every little last bit of nut was cleaned out, so if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re safer to just not chance it.
Q: What are the chances of the ‘B’ sample coming back negative?
A: Hard to say because we do not know the precise testing protocol. A wide screen immunoassay indicates that there is a possibility of a problem. If there is a positive on that test, a more sensitive test is performed. I can’t believe that Aegis (the drug testing lab) would make a public accusation without having done the GC-MS test (which is described in my previous blog). If the B-sample measurement is the same GC-MS test, I would be extremely surprised if they get different results.
Q: What will the toxicologist do when the ‘B’ sample is tested?
A: I talked to a a toxicologist who served as an athlete advocate. Their role is to ensure that all standard protocols are followed and that nothing has been overlooked. They will look at the raw data produced by the measurement and provide their own interpretation. “Interpretation” in the case of scientific measurements is much less fuzzy than in something like law. Toxicology communities have agreed-upon standards, so both the testing company and the Allmendinger toxicologist are working on the same page.
Q: Is an energy drink a ‘stimulant’?
A: Yes. So is a cup of coffee and so is an energy drink. There’s a big difference between enjoying a cup of coffee in the morning and not being able to start functioning without the cup of coffee. There’s even more difference when you’re talking about a college student who uses coffee and energy drinks to stay up all night studying and is so wired the next morning that they have a car accident. Anytime you talk about drugs, you’re talking about matters of degree.
Q: What will NASCAR do if the B sample comes back positive, but they are pretty sure it’s due to an energy drink or supplement?
A: Please stop asking this. We have no idea what NASCAR will do and right now, I’m pretty glad I’m not NASCAR because this is a tough situation. NASCAR makes a big deal with car inspections that they don’t deal with intent, they just penalize the situation. Even if you make an honest mistake, you’re going to pay the penalty. We have tens if not hundreds of prior cases for tech inspection failures. When it comes to drivers, we have a handful and the overwhelming majority of those were people who admitted using illegal drugs.