Dying to be thin

2,4-Dinitrophenol is so toxic that it was used to make explosives in the First World War. So why, 100 years later, are people taking it to lose weight?

Chris Mapletoft died the day after his last A-level exam.

The 18-year-old rising rugby star had gone to the pub on June 17 2013 to celebrate new found freedom. He got home for 7pm and was still fairly sober.

The following morning he was feeling very unwell, but his mother Lesley Mapletoft had gone to work, thinking her son was just a little hungover.

It was his father, Dave, who found him dead. He had seen him in his last moments, sweaty and complaining of a fever. Dave had gone out to buy Chris a fan to try and cool him down.

When he got home, Chris was rasping so badly that Dave called an ambulance.

The medics arrived, but it was too late. Chris had already died before his father got home.

“I still can’t really talk about him; my throat seizes up. The grief is overwhelming.”

The bright student was killed by 2,4 Dinitrophenol, known as DNP, which is a lethal chemical often misused as a weight loss aid, especially in the bodybuilding community. The police found DNP pills in Chris’ bedroom the day he died.

Chris, from Twickenham, south-west London, is thought to be the youngest victim of DNP.

Lesley was left in a state of utter disbelief when she found out her son had been killed by this toxic substance she had never heard of.

“When he died I felt absolute shock, grief and horror that he could make such bad judgement, as he wasn’t a reckless young man,” Lesley says.

“Chris had worked so hard to get the grades he needed.

“I couldn’t believe that as a young man who was about to embark on the next stage he had just suddenly died. It was so sudden, so unexpected,” she added.

Chris had just finished his A-level exams. It was only realised after his death that he had gained the grades he needed to study business at a university in London.

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Chris was a keen rugby player for his school

It’s been four years since Chris passed, but the memory is still very raw for Lesley.“It’s very hard but we keep going, as I know Chris would have been horrified that his actions had exposed the family to this awful sadness.“I still can’t really talk about him; my throat seizes up. The grief is overwhelming,” she says.

“I couldn’t believe he had just so suddenly died”

Chris was a healthy, athletic young man who studied at Hampton School, one of Britain’s top independent schools, and went to the gym three or four times a week.

His mother thinks he only took DNP to try and achieve his ideal physique.

“Chris was looking great.

“I can only believe that he took them as he wanted a six-pack for his first non-family; he was due to go abroad with friends from school,” she says.

The following video is a dramatisation.

It wasn’t until September 2013, three months after Chris’s death, that a coroner’s inquest confirmed it was Dinitrophenol toxicity that killed him.

Where, how or why he brought them is still unknown.

What is Dinitrophenol?

DNP is a yellow, crystalline organic compound with high acute toxicity. It is so dangerous and powerful that it was used to make explosives in the First World War.

Taken in high doses it burns fat by speeding up your metabolism; but this comes with often fatal consequences. The body overheats to temperatures of 44°; literally cooking you.

Once your body temperature starts rising uncontrollably, there is nothing that can be done to save you.

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Overdosing is highly likely, says Jim McVeigh, Director of Public Health Institute and author of “2,4-Dinitrophenol, the inferno drug: a netnographic study of user experiences in the quest for leanness” .

“DNP is one of the substances which is most difficult to get an accurate therapeutic dosage; it has a very narrow therapeutic window.”

“I can’t think of any substance used outside a hospital setting that is as dangerous as DNP.

“DNP has a much finer margin for error than most recreational drugs,” he says.

Online forums show those who have managed to ‘safely’ use it have noted nausea, vomiting, sweating, dizziness and headaches as side effects to the rapid weight loss.

Long term use can also lead to cataracts, skin lesions and may damage the heart and nervous system.

DNP was first used as an explosive in the First World War. Those who worked with it in the munitions factories lost weights and sweated after exposure to the chemical; the first person then died in 1918.

This revealed the power and potential of the drug, which was used extensively in diet pills in the US from 1933 to 1938 after Maurice Tainter and Windsor Cutting published a report on its fat loss potential.

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It was soon linked to several deaths and hospitalizations in the U.S. and Europe, so the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that DNP was ‘extremely dangerous and not fit for human consumption’.

Many years later, in April 2015, DNP was the subject of an Interpol Orange Notice (warning to the public).

In 2003, the Food Standards Agency in the UK, who actively work to stamp out the sale of the substance, issued a similar warning, again ruling that DNP is ‘not fit for human consumption’. This came after a Finish bodybuilder was hospitalized due to taking DNP.

The warning did not prevent deaths. There were fourteen cases of DNP poisoning reported to the National Poisons Information Service last year, resulting in one fatality. This was lower than 2015, during which there were thirty-five cases reported with six fatalities.

The FSA said: “This decline corresponds to our targeted operative activity against the sale of DNP for human consumption.”

However, the NPIS said: “The situation needs to be kept under close review because of the severity of toxicity associated with DNP.”

As of 2011, there had been 62 published deaths in the medical literature attributed to DNP, according to the US National Library of Medicine.

Where is it sold?

This is a harrowing story of too many lives lost, to a poison which is almost impossible to control or clamp-down on because of difficulty with regulating the internet, where DNP is sold in capsules and its raw form.

McVeigh blames the internet for the re-emergence of DNP which had disappeard in 1938 because of health warnings.

“We haven’t caught up yet regarding the internet around policies and deployment around detection.

“It was the internet which led to the re-emergence of the drug, and the problem with this is that young people are so trusting of the internet, where fraud is common,” says McVeigh.

“You only need half an hour and you can set a website up and there can be no control over it or the legitimacy of information.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle and I think a lot of the health messaging has to be around the internet rather than the drug,” he says.

The images below show how DNP is marketed on various websites.

The problem with the freedom of the internet isn’t limited to DNP. Last year about 2,000 websites selling unlicensed slimming tablets were shut down by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

At the same time more than 240,000 doses of general diet pills were seized by teams involving local council trading standards officers.

In 2013, Sarah Houston died after taking a lethal dose of DNP. Toxicology tests found that the substance was ‘entirely’ responsible for Sarah’s death.

She had been taking the pills for at least 18 months.

That’s the danger of DNP; you may be fine at first but it’s impossible to tell which dose will be fatal.

“Very simply- don’t even think about taking it. There is a high chance you will burn up, be poisoned and die. Don’t think that it is fine that you have been taking it for years,” Lesley says.

What is the law against DNP?

On 28th October 2013, Lesley and Sarah Houston’s family met with MP Cheryl Gillan, the FSA and police to discuss what could be done to prevent further deaths from DNP.

Ms Gillan was the Houston’s MP, who indicated that she wanted to get the matter tabled at the commons and to take action.

All GP’s were written to about the danger of DNP, gyms were visited and a social media campaign with the hashtag #DNPkills was launched by the FSA in 2015 to try and deter users.

“We talked about the possibility of it being classified as a class 2 drug, i.e whether the home office support that, as we believed had been the case with Triptophan and Kava Kava,” Lesley says.

The difficulty with controlling Dinitophenol is that it still has a legitimate use in biochemical research and in manufacturing chemicals, such as fertilisers and pesticides.

“DNP has a much finer margin for error than most recreational drugs”

This means it cannot be fully banned, and so DNP is not illegal for sale but it is illegal when sold for human consumption.

As such, the police see it is a poison rather than a drug, meaning they cannot target individual sellers or keep records of when they seize it in investigations.

Futher confusion comes in that the FSA deal with food safety and food hygiene; not chemicals like DNP.

The Medicines Healthcare and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency explained this: “DNP (2,4-Dinitrophenol) is an industrial chemical and is not regarded as a medicine. When it is sold or supplied for this purpose, it is regarded as falling under food regulations.”

Thirteen years after the launch of #DNPkills and over 70 worldwide deaths later and it takes only a few seconds to find internet sites selling DNP. They are mostly on steroid websites which also sell legitimate weight loss drugs; blurring the distinction between what’s ‘safe’ and what could cost you your life.

The law has not stopped DNP being sold, brought or consumed. ‘Steroids4u.eu’, ‘buydnp.store’ and ‘steroidbazaar.com’ are just a few easily findable websites which sell DNP under fat loss categories.

Many of these websites are based in foreign countries, or sell their website names to companies, which often makes it frustratingly difficult to locate and prosecute sellers.

Advice on how to ‘safely’ take DNP are shared on bodybuilding forums, yet McVeigh says there’s a gap between perceived and actual knowledge.

“There were people (in the study) who seemed to have quite a good understanding of the science but still could not appreciate the actual risks involved and vice versa,” he says.

When DNP is misused it can and has caused deaths. Some, like Lesley, think this warrants harsher laws.

“I think people who are doing this dreadful thing just for some money should be charged with murder. It’s very hard though- the web is a great invention but a great vehicle for fraudsters.

“The police advise that when they shut one site down another pops up,” she says.

Currently, the longest sentence anybody can receive for selling DNP is two years in prison.

“The priorities for internet crimes are not around drugs”

McVeigh doesn’t think that harsher laws are the answer.“You can prosecute someone selling it; if someone’s died then you can do them for manslaughter, or if someone’s just ill from it you can do them for actual bodily harm (ABH) or grievous bodily harm.“When you’re talking about things being sold through the internet, the priorities for internet crimes are not going to be around drugs, you don’t have the man-power.“Anyway, I don’t think a change in law would act as a deterrent, although it might have a part in an overall campaign that involves education in its wider sense,” he says.

“Our society thinks that our problems can be easily solved by a pill.”

The National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), which is part of the FSA and is responsible for protecting the public from dangerous food substitutes including dietary supplements, launched an operation in April 2015 to target websites selling the chemical.

Their latest arrest was in in Feburary last year, against a man in West London accused of supplying DNP as a slimming aid.

Andy Morling, Head of Food Crime at the Food Standards Agency, said: “Please do not be persuaded by the claims being made, those selling DNP do not care about your wellbeing.”

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Authorities seize one steroid-selling domain.

 This law is susceptible to abuse, though. Steroids4u.eu states that their goods are not intended for humans, yet many signs on the site indicate that it is; such as listing DNP under ‘fat loss’ and giving quantities and advice needed for a DNP cycle.

This means that the site – and others like it – can often get away with selling DNP for human consumption, by writing such disclaimers.

However, McVeigh thinks we need to focus on motivations for taking DNP rather than the law.

“Certainly for many of the more recent fatalities in connection with DNP, these were people that by no stretch of the imagination were overweight, never mind clinically obese. So there’s obviously a ‘driver’ to conform to a ‘stylised body image’ which, to many people is unattainable.”

Health problems also have a part to play in the underground bodybuilding scene, says Glen Hanson, author of Drugs and Society.

“Dieting and bodybuilding in some ways is a reaction to the increasing problems with obesity and associated diseases such as diabetes.

“Our society thinks that our problems can be easily solved by a pill without making difficult lifestyle changes,” he says.

Jessica Martin is a 20-year-old mother who has been taking various diet pills since she was 16, because she is desperate to lose weight and like the way she looks.

Despite this, she only buys pills which are sold in Boots, Superdrug and other high street brands.

“With me, I have the view that if it is sold in shops that I trust, then I am happy to take them, I would never buy anything shady offline.

“The only things I have heard about DNP are really bad so it is not worth the risks,” she says.

“I am prepared to do anything to lose weight rather than eat healthy and go to the gym regularly. It sounds ridiculous but the idea of a miracle pill seems perfect.”

This shows the importance of reinforcing negative messaging to deter users; but also that desperation to attain an ideal body image and the promise of a quick fix can make you blind to the warnings.

DNP has been killing people for almost 100 years. It’s apparent that more needs to be done to convince users that weight loss isn’t worth risking your life.

Header image: By Aleksander Sobolewski via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53746062

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