BOSTON — THE occasional famous athlete found using steroids may get the headlines, but authorities are even more concerned about the widespread abuse of these potentially harmful drugs in high school - and even earlier. Lured by dreams of athletic glory, or simply a more muscular appearance, as many as a half million American adolescents use or have used anabolic steroids according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
One typical case involving a 15-year-old football player was described by Dr. Robert Willix of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., who has done research in the field.
``The boy's parents began noticing an incredible increase in his size, and also a drastic change in his personality.'' Dr. Willix said. ``His school work became erratic, he had rage attacks, and he began threatening his father.''
Tests revealed steroid use, and the boy promised to stop. But he soon went back, this time refusing to quit, and again becoming physically threatening.
``Basically, the boy had gone from a normal teen-ager to a psychologically impaired, angry human being inside of one year, and had to be put into a drug rehabilitation program,'' Willix said.
Far from being an isolated incident, this sort of problem is more widespread than was previously believed, according to a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University professor William Buckley and colleagues. In a sampling of 3,403 senior boys at 46 public and private high schools, 6.6 percent reported current or past use. The authors say this ``suggests that between 250,000 and 500,000 adolescents in the country have used or are currently using these drugs.''
While athletes were the main users, they were hardly the only ones.
``We asked very specifically what the primary motivation was,'' says Mr. Buckley. ``Most indicated it was to enhance athletic performance. But 26.7 percent said it was for appearance.''
Dr. Clarence Noe, who publishes a guide on the subject for high school and middle school students in Broward County, Fla., also cited this aspect.
``We were particularly concerned about the number of non-athletes using steroids to try to be the `Charles Atlas for the beach' type,'' he said. MORE than 38 percent of the users in the Buckley survey said they had started by age 15, indicating that use sometimes begins quite early.
``It gets into the junior high schools, no question about it,'' says Jim Gard, a high school coach and athletic trainer in Ft. Lauderdale who authored the booklet put out by Dr. Noe's office. ``Kids are starting when they're 12 or 13 years old - or even earlier.''
The consensus, though, is that while there are some such instances, the big problem in terms of numbers begins around ninth grade.
Medical authorities say prolonged use of steroids may cause cancer, heart disease, liver disease, or sterility. These dangers have been spelled out in numerous publications, including the regular monthly pamphlets put out by the National Federation of State High School Associations. But doctors are faced now with a ``credibility gap'' created by their initial skepticism about whether the drugs actually had any effect.
``Unfortunately, without scientific proof, the profession felt it was probably more of a placebo effect than anything,'' says Dr. Robert Voy, the United States Olympic Committee's director of sports medicine. ``Now when we come back with the information that these drugs are harmful, the athletes figure we don't really know what we're talking about.''
The sale or purchase of steroids without a prescription is illegal in the US, but those close to the scene say they are increasingly easy to obtain. Most of the users in the Buckley survey said they got drugs on the black market, but about 21 percent cited a physician, pharmacist, or veterinarian as the main source.
Authorities are cautiously optimistic, however, that as young people learn about the hazards, the ``credibility gap'' will be overcome and use will decline.