A toxic substance that is used as a weight loss aid despite being banned for human consumption claimed the life of a 23-year-old woman last year, and her family is now seeking to make the substance illegal. Her death was the 63rd linked to DNP, a highly toxic industrial chemical used in pesticides. In response to the family’s plight, UK Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to “look carefully across government about what more we can do to warn people about these things.”
Sarah Houston, a British medical student who had been battling bulimia, began taking DNP along with an antidepressant, and though it’s unclear how long she had been using DNP, a forensic toxicologist said it might have accumulated in her system. (An investigation showed that Houston had ingested 38 capsules containing DNP from a packet of 100.)
Coroner David Hinchliff, speaking at an inquest this week about Houston’s death, put the blame “entirely at the door of DNP” and said he hopes the tragedy leads to a campaign to outlaw sales of DNP in pill form. “Anyone who professionally manufactures capsules to be taken as a drug have the intention of people using it as a drug. Sarah’s death is a consequence of that,” Hinchliff said.
In November, the UK’s Food Standards Agency issued a warning about the “fat-burner” capsules, advising the public not to use any product labeled as containing DNP or 2, 4 Dinitrophenol, as the product is also known. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved DNP for human consumption; in fact, the numerous deaths and serious adverse reactions from the use of DNP in the 1930s were among the reasons Congress enacted the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 1938.
Police think the DNP that Houston obtained was imported from Spain, though it’s not clear whether she purchased it over the Internet, which is a major source of the pills. Websites that sell DNP and market it as being able to dramatically speed up the metabolism are, unfortunately, relatively easy to find; these are online stores that sometimes also illegally sell other unapproved bodybuilding supplements and anabolic steroids. But a poisonous chemical used in pesticides has no business being manufactured and sold for weight loss purposes. Houston’s family expressed their concerns about the chemical continuing to be available on the market. “Whilst the FSA has banned it from human consumption, its risks are not widely known and it does not seem to affect the ease at which it can be bought from the Internet,” the family said in a statement. “It seems incomprehensible to us that such a toxic substance can be available in tablet form to be sold in the UK for human consumption across the Internet.”
The dangers of DNP should be taken seriously by both the public and by law enforcement, and a crackdown on the manufacturers and online purveyors of these and other deadly “slimming pills” should occur before they can do more harm.