The Killer Weight Loss Drug DNP Is Still Claiming Young Lives
The pills – which have killed bodybuilders and people with eating disorders – effectively cook you from the inside.
Left: DNP pills; Right: Eloise Parry, via Twitter
April 12, 2015. Shrewsbury. The Royal Hospital.
I screwed up big time.
Lying on a gurney, 21-year-old Eloise Parry texted a friend.
Binged/purge all night and took another four pills at 4am when I woke. Now in A&E. I think I'm going to die. No-one is known to survive if they vomit because of DNP. I'm so scared.
Eloise was bulimic. She had been using DNP – 2,4-Dinitrophenol – for a couple of years, for slimming. She bought it online, from a site called Dr Muscle Pharmaceuticals. Lately, though, she had become "too enchanted by her weight loss to acknowledge how unhealthy she was getting" – according to her brother during the inquest that followed her death.
DNP heats you up. It stops the mitochondria in your cells from absorbing the energy that has just been released from your body breaking down your food. That energy needs to go somewhere. So it becomes heat. But it's still a slow process. Those four pills at 4AM would gradually cycle through Eloise's system over the coming hours, swelling her body temperature by around four degrees. An intolerable, agonising fever.
Bluntly, she'd cook.
There is no antidote, no treatment, no amount of cold compress that can take you that deep into the body. And so, helpless, but fully conscious, all she could do was say her farewells, gather her thoughts and await the inevitable.
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March, 1918. H&M Factory. Rainham. Essex.
A bright yellow powder is mixed with picric acid and poured into the howitzer shells headed for the Western front. It's a powerful igniting agent. Week by week, the workers start to get thin. They also start to get hot. Literally.
A few die before the connection becomes clear. The powder is DNP. It stinks. It's reputed to have a musty, sulphurous odour, which once absorbed turns up everywhere – in sweat, in phlegm, even in semen. You taste sulphur when you burp. You smell it when you sneeze.
By some trick of Einsteinian relativity, the speeding-up of the metabolism by as much as a third also slows you down by the same amount.
"Imagine," a bodybuilder would report to a forum years later, "That when you wake up in the morning and walk to the bathroom you feel like you're walking on an incline of 33% or more. Now imagine every stair you climb is over a third higher. And imagine you have to do all of that for a third longer than usual."
The government imposes controls. The munitions game moves on. DNP slips from view.
March, 1933. The New Republic Magazine.
"Other anti-fat remedies will perhaps be driven off the market. Certain health resorts will no longer be patronised, and manufacturers of clothing, furniture and other products for the excessively stout will see their patronage dwindle."
It's the Great Depression, but the marvels of modern science simply never cease.
Two Stanford chemists read an account of the munitions workers' symptoms. They experiment further, proving DNP's weight loss potential.
In The New Republic, a breathless report predicts a glorious future for a tablet commonly sold over the counter as "Redusols" – $3 for a 30-day supply. It seems America has gone nuts for this holy grail slimming aid. A hundred-thousand are estimated to take it. Losses of five pounds a week are not uncommon. The tang of sulphur lodges at the back of a nation's throat.
Only, not all feedback is positive. As time goes on, the cases mount. Cataracts. Skin lesions. Breathing difficulties. In June of 1936, a TIME investigation suggests that 100 women in Los Angeles alone who were taking Redusols "were known to be blind or partly so with cataracts".
The newly-formed Food and Drug Administration takes an interest. DNP disappears. Again.
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1993. Metropolitan Correctional Centre. San Diego
History is full of chance meetings, but few are as macabre as the prison summit of Dan Duchaine and Nicholas Bachynsky. Bachynsky first learned of the effects of DNP while translating Russian medical journals for the Americans, during WWII. The Soviets had been giving the drug to their troops for an altogether different aim: to keep them warm in the bitter Siberian winters.
Bachynsky, a doctor, takes the little he knows and sets up a slimming clinic, in Texas. He brands his cure "Metcal". Word spreads. It works. It really works. The housewives flock to him. Soon, he has seven clinics. Too many. He's making $10 million a year. Too much. The FDA come round, asking questions. He is charged with 87 counts of racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud, bankruptcy fraud and money laundering. Jail beckons.
Duchaine is a book in himself. He is no less than The King Of Steroids. The bodybuilder pens a text called The Underground Steroid Handbook. How to get big, cut, pumped, the unnatural way. He sells it in the classifieds section, in the back of bodybuilding magazines, for 6 cents a copy. It shifts thousands, and a lot of steroids on the side. He single-handedly popularises clenbuterol, a steroid and weight loss drug now allegedly beloved by members of today's A-list.
But he gets caught smuggling a batch of steroids from Mexico. Jail beckons.
Talking to Bachynsky, Duchaine can barely believe his luck. DNP is everything and more. Upon release, he is interviewed on a cassette distributed with MM2K Magazine. He promises listeners that he is working on "a huge secret". Something that will change the face of modern bodybuilding.
Duchaine reveals DNP. He dubs it "the king of fat loss drugs". A co-regency begins.
DNP fills the "chemical enhancement" community's mailbags and forums. Not all reviews are positive. Most make dark, uncomfortable reading. It is, one writer suggests, like descending into Dante's Inferno: the heat, the taste of sulphur, the terrible, terrible lethargy. But no one denies this: it works.
So begins the lucky third life of DNP.
January 12, 2000. Carlsbad, California.
Dan Duchaine is found dead at his home. He is 48.
2004. Fort Lauderdale, South Florida.
Bachynsky is returned to prison for selling a quack cancer cure: "a patented therapy involving intracellular heat to destroy cancer cells".
June 19, 2018. Inner London Crown Court, Borough.
In the dock, 30-year-old Bernard Rebelo weeps. His girlfriend is next to him. Judge Jeremy Donne has just handed Rebelo a seven-year sentence, for the manslaughter of Eloise Parry.
The girlfriend, Mary Roberts, 32, has just escaped on a money-laundering charge, after a mysterious £20,000 was found in her bank account. Rebelo isn't so lucky. As the owner of Dr Muscle Pharmaceuticals, he had dealt in steroids, supplements and DNP – which is illegal to sell as a weight loss supplement in the UK – from the couple's flat.
November, 2014. Portsmouth Harbour.
A blue plastic barrel rolls off a container ship. It has just arrived from Henan province, the grassy central plains of China. It is signed through customs. From there, it is taken, by car, up to the home of its new owner, Bernard Rebelo.
Rebelo has paid just £340 for his barrel. It's 24 kilos. Inside: yellow. Bright, noxious, pupil-pixelating, raving-in-hell yellow.
Police will later find hundreds of empty pill capsules, waiting to be filled. They find a full barrel. And also an empty one. An empty barrel is, they estimate, good for 200,000 caps. It also grosses around £200,000, when capped-up.
Rebelo's is the first conviction of its kind. But it is still only a conviction at all because of a fatal error. His labels don't mention that DNP is not for human consumption. "Weed killer", "research purposes": label as you like, but if you're not prepared to be deeply disingenuous, expect prison.
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February 15, 2018. Worcester.
Bethany Shipsey dies of a DNP overdose in an overstocked hospital corridor, at Worcestershire Royal Hospital A&E.
July 16, 2017. Swansea.
Liam Willis, 24, is found dead at a Premier Inn.
June 5, 2013. Twickenham.
Eighteen-year-old Chris Mapletoft dies at home, hours after taking taking his final A-level exam.
February 13, 2013. Epsom.
Sarmad Alladin, "Mr Muscles", 18-year-old son of an Indian millionaire, collapses and dies in his student residence.
October 16, 2012. High Wycombe
Sean Cleathero dies at the Apollo Gym. He has just drunk a dissolved a sachet of DNP.
So it goes on. The harvest is vast. Between 15 and 17 percent of those who refer themselves to hospital, including those with no symptoms, will die.
Professor Simon Thomas is Director of the National Poisons Information Service: "That is an enormous mortality. I cannot think of another poison which causes that amount of deaths."
But can he think of another poison that causes as much fat loss without effort? Even comes close? Until then, DNP – this un-killable daemon soused in Satanic sulphur, dieting's eternal bad penny – will continue to roll back round, cooking its victims from within, cell-by-cell, igniting flesh with its Mephistophelean magic.
If you or someone you know is experiencing disordered eating or body image concerns, you can call Beat on 0808 801 0677. You can also speak to your GP, or mental health charity Mind, on 0300 123 3393.