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Family Blames Teen’s Death on Lax Regulation of Energy Boosters

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Rosanna Porras took the energy boosters called Ripped Fuel before her soccer practice last week, she was ingesting pills whose key ingredient is described by one drug expert as “an atom away” from illegal methamphetamine.

Rosanna, the 15-year-old class president at Fillmore High School, collapsed during the practice and died three days later.

Her family and doctors are blaming the pills and lax government regulation. Meanwhile, some health professionals contend the tragedy underscores the risks that can lurk in voguish, attractively packaged natural remedies.

Ephedrine, the main component of Ripped Fuel, is also the main component of methamphetamine and has been used to add bulk to cocaine for sale on the street. Hundreds of small meth labs in Southern California have been fueled by the ephedrine found in everyday over-the-counter treatments for head colds and allergies, according to police.

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“Methamphetamine is basically just ephedrine minus an oxygen atom,” said Jackie Long, a special agent for the California Department of Justice. Of 946 labs seized last year, 75% were small operations that procured their ephedrine at the local drug store, he said.

The problem has become so widespread that Chino and San Bernardino County have limited the amount of certain cold medicines that can be purchased at one time. Riverside, Orange County and San Diego counties are considering similar measures. “We’ve also been working with some of the large retailers,” said Sharon Carter, a spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency. “If someone is buying up cases of the stuff, we get a heads-up that there’s something going on here more than your average household cold.”

Yet, Rosanna, a well-liked girl who was active in school sports, never took drugs, friends and family members said.

And, in fact, Ripped Fuel is no drug; despite its potent contents--a recommended two-pill dose carries five times more ephedrine than Sudafed--the pills are marketed not as drugs but as food supplements, to the dismay of some health educators.

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“It’s a dangerous substance and shouldn’t be sold over the counter,” said William G. Jarvis, a Loma Linda Medical School professor who also directs the National Council Against Health Fraud.

Smaller doses of ephedrine have a legitimate use in cold pills, Jarvis acknowledged. But he said overdoses can lead to extremely high blood pressure, heart attacks, seizures and strokes--all dangers when young people try to boost athletic performance or go after ephedrine-induced highs with products such as Herbal Ecstasy.

Ripped Fuel is made from an herb the Chinese call ma huang, known here as ephedra. It has been used for thousands of years to treat allergies and asthma and is also used in diet pills. In the 1970s, its stimulating qualities drew interest from young people searching for a new thrill.

“You could see ads for ephedra in the counterculture newspapers,” Jarvis said. “What were street drugs 20 years ago are on the shelves of the health-food stores today.”

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FDA Now on the Case

Tuesday, an official from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stopped by the Porras house to pick up Rosanna’s medical records. The federal agency has received more than 800 complaints about ephedrine-related problems and is considering drafting restrictions in the next six months, including requiring companies to recommend much lower dosages.

Under a 1994 law, the agency must prove dietary supplements are harmful before it can regulate them.

Officials of Twinlab Inc., the Ronkonkoma, N.Y., company that makes Ripped Fuel, declined comment Tuesday, saying medical tests to determine the cause of Rosanna’s death have not been completed.

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The girl’s father, Henry Porras, vowed to take the company to court if the tests should indicate the pills were at fault.

“They really need to have a feeling for who their customer is and for the kids out there taking their stuff,” Porras said. “They need to make sure what they’re selling is safe. If we could get them to that point, then my daughter’s death, I think I could live with the pain,” he said as he wept.

Rosanna was rushed to Santa Paula Memorial Hospital after she collapsed April 6. On April 8, she was taken to Cottage Memorial Hospital in Santa Barbara, where she was pronounced brain-dead. She did not regain consciousness after her collapse.

Larry Gillespie, a deputy coroner in Santa Barbara County, said he suspects her death is linked to the pills.

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“I think there is a connection,” he said. “There seems to be a connection between ephedrine and sudden cardiac death, but we have just not substantiated it from a medical, legal perspective.”

Studies of Rosanna’s heart tissue should be completed this week and toxicological tests by the end of next week. Dr. Robert Dekkers pumped Rosanna’s stomach when she arrived at the emergency room in Santa Paula. If no underlying health problems are found by the coroner, Dekkers also believes the pills might be implicated.

“If the coroner’s report is negative for any other congenital heart problems, I don’t see any other explanations for what happened,” Dekkers said.

“Her teammates say she took a few capsules, but no one knew how many,” Dekkers said. “Apparently, she had also done some other sport earlier in the morning and was needing an energy boost, and thought that this was the only way she could do it. It’s very unfortunate.”

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Students Mourn Loss of Friend

On Tuesday, a marquee at Fillmore High School bore the message: “We love you Rosanna Porras. You will always be in our hearts.” Across the street, students, friends and family members filed into Skillin-Carroll Mortuary to see her one last time.

Several of Rosanna’s girlfriends gingerly placed pictures of themselves in the casket, and then, sobbing, turned to embrace Rosanna’s parents.

“Here is this little girl, 15 years old, full of life, active,” her father said. “She did not run through life, she did not walk through life--she skipped through life.”

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Her friend, Tanyia Melgoza, 17, said: “I will always remember her smile. I never saw her mad.”

A few students at the mortuary nodded when asked whether they knew of others who used Ripped Fuel and similar natural stimulants.

In a number of other states, they could not do that legally. In those states that have banned such products, some companies have responded by making them with ephedrine substitutes.

“But the ephedrine-free products aren’t nearly as good,” said Francis Arpin, owner of the Cloud Nine Shoppe in Moodus, Conn. “There’s no comparison. You hardly get anything out of them.”

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Times correspondent Dawn Hobbs contributed to this story.


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