DNP: what is diet pills and weight loss tablets drug dinitrophenol, what is chemical used for in UK - is it banned?

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A dangerous chemical substance that is unlawfully included as an ingredient in certain diet tablets will be categorised as a poison, according to a government minister, after 32 young vulnerable adults died as a result of taking pills containing 2,4-dinitrophenol.

Security minister Tom Tugendhat said new legislation regulating DNP - which was laid on Monday (30 January) - would come into force on 1 October 2023.

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But what is the substance, how dangerous is it, and what will the new rules around it mean? Here is everything you need to know about it.

What is 2,4-dinitrophenol?

2,4-dinitrophenol (or DNP) is an industrial chemical compound that is used as a fat-burning agent in diet pills. The substance triggers a period of increased metabolism within a person, which can result in weight loss.

But even taking just a small dosage can prove to be fatal. Even if the dose is not lethal, it can lead to painful side-effects.

Often taking the form of a yellow powder, the known side effects include multiple organ failure, coma and cardiac arrest. Those who take DNP can also suffer with high temperatures, nausea, abdominal pain, and seizures.

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In March 2020 a UK judge stated "there is no antidote or remedy for DNP once taken. In consequence, DNP has a high mortality rate ⁠— ⁠of those who presented at hospital between 2007 and 2019 with a history of having taken DNP, 18% died. This puts DNP close to cyanide in terms of its toxicity."

Consuming smaller doses over prolonged periods of time may cause skin lesions, cataracts, and damage to the heart, blood and nervous system. During the First World War, 2,4-dinitrophenol was used as a base material for munitions products.

DNP was marketed as a diet pill in the US in the 1930s, but it was quickly banned in 1938. Selling it for human consumption has also since been made illegal in the UK by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). But it continues to have a market in the UK amongst bodybuilders and those that want to lose weight.

What does the new legislation look like?

Once the new laws come into effect on 1 October, only a registered pharmacist will be able to sell DNP to a member of the public. The person wishing to buy the substance will also require a Home Office-issued licence to do so.

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“These licences can only be issued to individuals who can demonstrate a legitimate use of the substance,” said Tugendhat. “Any sale to a person without an EPP licence will be unlawful.”

The changes come after campaigner Doug Shipsey - whose daughter Bethany passed away in 2017 after consuming pills containing the substance - targeted Tugendhat in response to the death of another young man who had consumed DNP.

In March 2018, Vaidotas Gerbutavicius, 21, of Newham, London, took 20 pills. He died within an hour of being admitted to hospital.

“So, at last after 32 deaths and almost six years of campaigning, the Home Office (HO) finally accept responsibility to control DNP under the Poisons ACT 1972,” said Shipsey.

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A statement issued by both families, following Tugendhat’s announcement said: “Our loved [ones] innocently bought DNP on the internet, which is in the same explosives category as TNT and as lethal as cyanide, so will the Home Office ban online sales and implement blocks on search engine algorithms? If so when?”

The young people had died “because of the collective failures of the UK Government and especially the HO to protect its citizens from this heinous and fatally lethal substance.”

It went on to say that the victims were typically between 21 and 22 years old, and that the majority of them had some form of eating disorder, mental illness or body image issue.

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