Day At The Track

Xenon and Argon - prohibited substance

08:54 PM 07 Apr 2015 NZST
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Xenon has reportedly been used for a decade in Russia to prepare athletes for competitions

Harness Racing New South Wales will send a range of urine samples to Cologne, Germany to be screened for several different prohibited substances including xenon and argon gas. Methods of analysis for the detection of the elements has been developed for both blood and urine samples by a German laboratory.

HRNSW CEO John Dumesny confirmed the samples would be tested in Germany, as the governing body ensured it remained the industry leader in regards to its integrity strategies and policy.

"HRNSW strives to ensure there is a level playing field for all participants in the sport of harness racing in this state and the decision to send these swabs to Germany affirms our stance," Dumesny said.

"Xenon and Argon are both prohibited substances and are catergorised as stimulating agents."

Inhaling the gas has shown to boost levels of erythropoietin in the body which in turn stimulates the production of red blood cells.

"HRNSW will leave no stone unturned in keeping the sport clean."

"As a body, HRNSW wants the participants and punters alike to have full confidence in the sport and through strategies like this we are assuring this is the case."

Greg Hayes


For your interest;

Nina Notman investigates the recent ban on athletes inhaling noble gases

Anti-doping agencies are constantly working to stay one step ahead of athletes who want to cheat by using drugs that enhance their performance.

Doping is nothing new; since the ancient Greeks humans are known to have tweaked diets and used herbal concoctions to boost athletic performance. But as drugs have become more sophisticated over the past century or so, their effectiveness – as well as the risks to the athlete’s heath – has increased. Today, doping is banned in most sports worldwide.

Cartoon depicting doping with noble gases

There are 32 global labs accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada). They are filled with oodles of high tech analytical chemistry instruments able to detect minute traces of prohibited drugs in blood and urine. But as these techniques improve, unscrupulous athletes are just moving onto doping approaches not (yet) on Wada’s prohibited list.

The latest approach uncovered, and hence banned, is inhaling noble gases argon or xenon. Some evidence suggests these gases increase hypoxia-inducible factor 1-α levels in the blood. ‘This protein stimulates EPO – erythropoietin – production in the body,’ says Nick Wojek, head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Doping. EPO increases the body’s red blood cell count, increasing blood’s oxygen carrying capacity and therefore enhancing performance and endurance, he explains.

Argon and xenon are both naturally present in the air. Argon makes up 0.9% of air, while xenon accounts for a minuscule one part per 10 million. They can be obtained by fractional distillation of liquid air and both have a handful of medical uses: argon is used in cryosurgery for treating cancer; xenon as an anaesthetic, for imaging lungs and for treating tissues starved from oxygen in heart attacks. Cheating athletes, however, mix them with oxygen and inhale them through a gas mask.

Once the ban, which came into force on 1 September, was announced, media attention turned to how these cheating athletes could be caught out as at that time no accredited test for argon or xenon doping was available.

However there is now a test in development. Gas chromatography mass spectrometry, a staple in Wada accredited laboratories, has previously been shown to be able to detect xenon in the blood plasma of patients who have received the gas as an anaesthetic. Work is ongoing to ensure this technique is robust enough for anti-doping testing.

In the meantime, Athlete Biological Passports will provide clues that blood doping has taken place. ‘Here we are not looking for the substance itself, we are looking at the effects of the substance on the body,’ explains Nick. A change in haemoglobin markers in the blood would be seen, for example.

Doping violations lead to bans ranging from a few months to a lifetime depending on the severity of the offence. But when the desire to win outweighs the desire to play fair this isn’t always enough to prevent doping. Fingers crossed one day analytical chemistry will be able to unearth every single cheat, allowing the spirit of sport to truly be protected.

How xenon gas may boost performance

Inhaling xenon, mixed with oxygen, is believed to improve stamina because it increases the body's production of a protein known as hypoxia inducible factor 1, or HIF1.

In turn this stimulates the production of natural erythropoietin (EPO) which regulates the number of red blood cells. The more of these cells, the more oxygen you can carry, and the greater your athletic stamina.

Doping with artificial EPO has been one of the biggest threats to the integrity of sport over the past 20 years. The clampdown on using the drug has seen sports scientists develop other methods including the use of xenon and argon.

Gas facts

  • Xenon and argon are called noble gases because they are inert and don't react with anything else
  • At less than 100 parts per billion, xenon is one of the rarest natural gas components in the atmosphere
  • Xenon has been used in flash bulbs, lamps and in medical imaging
  • In Russia, xenon has been used for decades as an anaesthetic because of its lack of side effects
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