Reports that some Russian athletes at the Olympics may have been inhaling xenon gas has caused a stir in the endurance athletics community.
We didn’t know a lot about xenon and were wondering what it is and why athletes would be using it.
At the most basic, xenon is a naturally occurring element. It’s one of the most rare naturally occurring elements, but it does exist sparingly in Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a heavy, colourless, odourless noble gas. It’s used mainly as an anesthetic and in flash lamps for photography. Some lasers also use xenon. It’s heavier than air, so another cool party trick works where you inhale the gas from a balloon to make your voice really deep, similar to how helium, which is lighter than air, makes your voice squeak. But what else is all that xenon in your lungs doing?
Xenon has been found to activate a protein called Hif-1. Hif-1 plays a few roles in the body, mainly notable for development of the vascular system in embryos. It’s also activated when the body needs help adapting to low oxygen environments, so you can see where things start fall into place with all this.
Hif-1 tells the body to begin the production of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. The benefits of having high levels of EPO are well documented and are also the basis of altitude training and blood doping. In short, xenon tricks the body into producing more natural EPO without altitude training. And this seems to be a point of contention in the debate of whether inhaling the gas is doping or not.
Inhaling xenon will promote natural EPO production, but the act of inhaling xenon gas in itself is certainly not natural. Training at altitude is allowed because it causes EPO levels to rise on their own, but blood doping is banned as it is usually done with a synthetic form of the hormone.
The Russian Olympic squads have reportedly been using the method since as early as 2004 and they don’t seem to find a problem with it. A document from Russia’s State Research of the Ministry of Defence in 2010 actually advised the use of it before competition to help with sleep disruption and listlessness. According to the Economist, the document says inhaling xenon in a 50/50 ratio with oxygen for a few minutes in the evening before going to sleep every two or three days is the best way to use it. Anecdotes also say the gas has been useful in preparing mountain climbers and pilots for their respective endeavours.
A 2009 experiment exposed mice to two hours of a 70 per cent xenon, 30 per cent oxygen mixture. The next day EPO levels in the mice had doubled.
So how do you get xenon? It doesn’t seem to be very hard, though it’s also not cheap. Praxair Canada, Inc. sells xenon gas form it’s office in Mississauga, Ont. A quick call put us in contact with their sales and services department. They told us the gas is rare and the price can vary largely because of economies of scale. To get an idea, 100L of xenon would run you $2,400 ($24/L) plus whatever it would cost to ship to your location. 1,000L would cost $17,000, making it much cheaper. We asked how easy it was to make an order and if anyone could place one. All we have to do to get some is register for an account online and place an order. It would be ready in two to three weeks.
So is all this doping? The verdict isn’t out yet, but some certainly think it should be considered doping.
“Let us realise without doubt that this is doping and it is impossible to say in this process that the rules are not clear,” former World Anti Doping Agency president and IOC vice-president Dick Pound told the Guardian.
The gavel is yet to come down on the use of xenon, but you can probably expect word from WADA soon.