Cape Town – Marketed as a miracle weight-loss supplement targeting the bodybuilding community, the illegal drug DNP (2,4-Dinitrophenol) is widely available on the black market and doctors are warning that users often pay for their rapid weight loss with their lives.
It’s illegal and potentially lethal, yet unscrupulous sellers are promoting it as a “miracle fat burner”. DNP is said to accelerate the basal metabolic rate, thereby raising the internal body temperature, which can lead to rapid weight loss.
DNP is an industrial chemical, first used during World War I by the French in explosives production. It’s been used as a pesticide, a wood preserver and even a dye.
In 1933, scientists from Stanford University discovered the compound had some fat-shredding properties. It was then marketed as a miracle over-the-counter weight loss drug until reports of adverse effects such as cataracts, liver damage and a number of deaths. Five years later, the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act declared DNP “extremely dangerous and not fit for human consumption”.
That hasn’t stopped sales, though. Last week, medical researcher Dr Harris Steinman warned that these “fat burning” supplements remained widely available, despite being a real danger.
In May 2015, Interpol issued a global alert about DNP after a woman died in the UK and a Frenchman was left seriously ill after taking the substance. Interpol had collaborated with the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and received additional information from the global anti-doping organisation after one of the Wada-accredited laboratories received a sample of the drug that was seized in Australia. Although usually sold in yellow powder or capsule form, Interpol said DNP is also available as a cream.
“Besides the intrinsic dangers of DNP, the risks associated with its use are magnified by illegal manufacturing conditions,” the agency said.
“In addition to being produced in clandestine laboratories with no hygiene regulations, without specialist manufacturing knowledge the producers also expose consumers to an increased chance of overdose.”
At the time, South African media reported that the Medicines Control Council, which was renamed the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra) in 2017, had said DNP was not yet available in this country.
However, it soon hit the black market, and appealed to bodybuilders in particular due to its reputed ability to drop body fat fast. DNP-attributed deaths are said to be of huge concern especially among fit, young people.
Steinman said that’s often because it’s adults who are buying supplements for their children.
In one report, a 22-year-old died in 2004 after taking DNP in what was advertised to be a “safe” dose. A year later, a teenager died after buying the drug for weight loss on the internet.
Steinman, a medical researcher and consumer activist, says the prevalence of the drug points to a broken system of both policing and enforcement: “A large portion of the market is children: parents are spending thousands of rand every month on these drugs for their kids to become the next big thing in rugby or some other sport, living vicariously through their children.
“There’s a huge number of unsubstantiated products advertised on prime-time television and radio, which claim to help consumers lose weight, reclaim hair loss or stimulate their natural immune responses, with zero consequences. Wondernut (reported in Consumer Watch in 2018: “You’d be nuts to try these toxic diet supplements”), which has been sold for years, causes liver cancer, pancreatitis and kidney failure. I’ve reported it to the health authorities, but nothing’s been done to stop them.”
A quick search found DNP was openly sold on Facebook and a website, anabolics-sa.co.za.
The company, which claims to be “your trusted anabolics provider”, advertises DNP as “an extremely powerful and beyond controversial fat burning drug”.
“There is no compound on Earth that can burn fat at the rate of DNP,” it claims. “However, to say it is beyond dangerous is almost an understatement. DNP is so dangerous it can in fact kill you.”
It then claims that the fat loss power of this compound is, using Trumpian phraseology, “truly tremendous” and so powerful that “we want to explain the ins and outs of this compound, go over its history and explain the horrific consequences that may occur”.
“While DNP is no longer available legally,” it admits, “it can still be found on the black market. The drug carries a bit of legendary status in the competitive bodybuilding world. While we cannot call it extremely common among competitive bodybuilders, this is the arena where you will find it most commonly. However, due to the risk associated with use it is rarely worth using it. In fact, while the risk of various performance-enhancing drugs are often blown out of proportion, when it comes to DNP the fear that surrounds it is completely warranted.”
In Trumpian parlance: “While the functioning process of DNP is tremendously simple, it is tremendously effective and equally dangerous.”
It then continues listing the benefits while emphasising how “extremely dangerous” the product is – and offering it for sale at R300 per 10 tablets. It also sells “injectables”, which is a synonym for steroids.
The anabolics-sa.co.za website is registered in South Africa but the registrant name, origin and other details are redacted.
Sahpra’s spokesperson, Yuven Gounden, said the association’s investigations team would be looking into the sale of DNP and the website.
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at email@example.com, tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook.
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