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HAVANA, Oct 9 2013 (IPS) - You can’t buy it in a store or get it in Cuba’s public health clinics. But young men who frequent gyms know who sells it and secretly inject themselves with “peanut oil,” as people in this country refer to synthol and other products that increase muscle mass.
The trend of injecting different substances to obtain huge muscles almost instantaneously seems to have taken root here. And it has already claimed victims.
“The first time I used (synthol) it gave me fever, chills and vomiting. I couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, the perimeter of my arms had grown by a centimetre,” Yosván Méndez, a schoolteacher, told IPS. He gave himself intramuscular injections for three months in 2011. “I’m never going to do it again. It’s crazy,” he said.
Méndez lost mobility and strength while the substance was encapsulated in his arms, because it takes the body time to completely absorb it. “I did something very painful without getting any results. As soon as I stopped using it, the enormous biceps that I had grown disappeared,” he said.
But he considers himself lucky, because he didn’t experience after-effects.
After four months of medical treatment for his right arm, Damián Rodríguez (not his real name) was finally able to lift weights again. “I was on the ninth bottle of peanut oil when I felt discomfort after an injection,” said the 21-year-old labourer from Havana. “My arm turned red and swelled up, and grease oozed out of my skin along with pieces of dead tissue.”
Rodíguez is one of many young men who end up in surgery wards to treat abscesses, blood clots, cysts and other problems caused by the excessive use of these types of oils, pirated products, and injections that are done incorrectly or in non-sterile conditions.
The products are compounds made of fatty acids, and some contain steroids, hormones, or painkillers. The best-known is synthol or site enhancement oil, created by German bodybuilder Chris Clark, who began to experiment with different kinds of oils in 1982, according to a study published this year by a team from the University Paediatric Hospital of Matanzas in western Cuba.
Synthol, approved for external use by the health authorities of countries such as the United States, contains 85 percent fatty acids, 7.5 percent benzyl alcohol, and 7.5 percent lidocain.
Clark experimented on his own body with small doses. He discovered that he could correct the defects of certain muscles and temporarily stretch the membrane that covered them, with less risk of abscesses than soy or sesame oil.
Spreading by word of mouth and Internet, this non-medically supported practice began catching on in the world of bodybuilding in the United States and Britain, before spreading to the rest of Europe and to Latin America.
In socialist Cuba, which has a centralised economy and has endured a half-century long U.S. embargo, these products are not made or sold in state stores but do make it into the country. They circulate on the black market, which has withstood police controls for decades, as well as the penalisation of contraband with prison terms of up to three years.
After the government decided in 2010 to expand the areas where self-employment is allowed, many gyms that were operating without authorisation obtained licenses, and their numbers are growing in urban areas. Those who operate private or public gyms can be penalised if they promote or permit the use of these substances among their clients.
The phenomenon forms part of a larger one: growing preoccupation among young men in this country about their physical appearance.
At the same time, rejection of non-natural, artificial synthol-induced muscles is growing out of health, ethical, and aesthetic reasons.
Activists, medical personnel and bodybuilders are trying to raise awareness about the problem, which they say the local media has mainly ignored.
“Young people need straight talk,” medical student Eduardo Zubizarreta tells IPS. “A lot of them are using it more and more because they don’t see anything bad happening to people who use it,” he says, adding that “they need to know about the long-term effects, too,” such as premature degenerative arthritis.
Young people and adolescents who fill up the gyms are the preferred targets of the individuals selling these substances. That is why most gym operators forbid “oiling up” and try to scare away distributors who hang around the premises.
“All it’s good for is oiling your skin,” Asuan Díaz, a member of the Cuban Bodybuilding Association, told IPS. “Our organisation is against injecting yourself with these substances,” said Díaz, who since 2001 has been running a gym in the El Cerro municipality of Havana.
Díaz gives advice to young men who come to his gym showing off giant muscles, apparently inflated with these substances. “You have one foot in the hospital and another in the grave,” the seasoned bodybuilder tells them. He advocates “talking more about the issue in the media and other spaces.”
The consequences are aggravated because “there is an abundance of adulterated substances using soy oil,” he explained.
Homemade recipes for synthol are easily found on the Internet, and fake versions are distributed.
A 100-millilitre bottle of the original product can cost from 200 to 300 dollars on the international market. According to several sources consulted by IPS, in the Cuban black market the same quantity goes for 12 to 20 CUC (currency equivalent to the dollar) – a small fortune when considering that the average monthly wage in 2012 was 19 dollars.
Out of ignorance or because they can’t afford to buy synthol, some young people inject themselves with other oils.
In Matanzas, two adolescents had to undergo 12 and 28 operations, respectively, after they injected themselves daily with 10 millilitres (a complete syringe) of soy oil in their arms, according to the abovementioned study.
“This is a new phenomenon and very difficult to combat, because young people hide it,” Dr. Anileme Valdivieso told IPS. Only one patient at her health centre admitted that he had injected himself with oil, when he refused to receive medication to prevent cholera in 2012. “He was afraid of adverse effects,” Valdivieso said.
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