Wednesday 21 March 2018

A fatal attraction: the deadly internet 'diet pill'

Tragic story: The latest victim of the deadly pills, Eloise Parry
Tragic story: The latest victim of the deadly pills, Eloise Parry

Judith Woods

A pesticide sold as a slimming aid claimed another life this week, boiling terrified Eloise Parry alive in her own body.

If something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is. It's a rule of thumb that we all learn with age and experience. But for the young and the vulnerable, a quick fix can seem just that: an instant answer, a magic bullet. To those who are overweight and struggling with low-level depression and poor self-image, popping an illicit diet pill might appear like a miracle cure; but it's a magic bullet that can kill.

This week an inquest opened into the tragic death of 21-year-old Eloise Parry from Shrewsbury, England, who bought highly toxic diet pills on the internet, took an overdose and died.

The tablets contained the banned substance Dinitrophenol, or DNP, that is known to speed up the metabolism and burn off fat. Having consumed eight pills - six more than the lethal dose - Eloise calmly drove herself to A&E.

She had no idea there wasn't any antidote until a toxicity test revealed that nothing could be done to save her. Eloise's final hours were wretched; her metabolism was so irretrievably damaged by DNP that her temperature soared to the point she was effectively boiled alive inside her own body.

"She never intended to take her life," her mother, Fiona Parry (51), said. "She just never really understood how dangerous the tablets were."

It's impossible not to feel appalled at such a freak occurrence; except what happened to Eloise, a bright young woman who was studying Families and Childcare at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, was not a one-off. In 2008, Selena Walrond, a 26-year old from Croydon, south London, was found dead in a freezing bath.

She too had overdosed on unlicensed DNP slimming pills obtained online from overseas. As her body reacted violently to the poison, she desperately tried - and failed - to cool down; her panic and fear can only be guessed at. Like Eloise, Selena clearly had no concept of the danger in which she was placing herself.

But despite such cautionary tales, demand for these pills continues.

"We live in an impatient culture," says Marilyn Glenville, a psychologist and nutritionist specialising in women's health.

"People want quick, simplistic answers to complex problems, and it's tragic when a young person loses their life in this terrible way. Gaining weight isn't just about hunger, but portion size and emotions and unconscious eating in front of the television or standing by the fridge; losing weight and keeping it off is about will power and effort and a change of mindset and lifestyle."

It's easier said than done, however, as attested by the poignant roll call of young people who have lost their lives in recent years. In 2013, Sarah Houston, a 23-year-old medical student at Leeds University, died from taking DNP, a pesticide which, despite being illegal for human consumption, is widely sold online and used by bodybuilders to burn fat.

DNP is a combination of compounds widely used in the early 20th century in a broad range of industrial processes. In 1933, an American researcher discovered that when taken by humans it dramatically speeded up the metabolism, leading to rapid weight loss.

But having been marketed as a weight-loss drug it was rapidly withdrawn when found to be highly toxic; more recently there has been evidence it is carcinogenic.

Side effects can include fever, dehydration, nausea, excessive sweating, dizziness and rapid or irregular heartbeat. In combination, these can lead to coma and death.

The truth remains that in modern times, there has always been demand for pills to counter or combat weight gain. Amphetamines - or speed -were originally taken as a slimming supplement. With every generation comes a fresh clamour for newer, faster ways to burn calories.

For those who have never struggled with weight issues it may be difficult to grasp why someone might feel driven to take drastic measures.

But the majority of women are all too familiar with crash diets; the dreary cabbage-soup regimen, the high-protein binge, the low-carb, no-wheat, extreme food-combining that transforms mealtimes into an exercise of strategy.

Supplements promising weight loss and containing ingredients as diverse as chilli or green tea are routinely sold over the counter; and therein lies the key to safety.

"From a normal pharmacy, you can be certain there are quality checks, which guarantee you are actually getting the medication you think you are," stresses psychiatrist Dr James Woolley.

"This isn't always the case over the internet and there have been cases of drugs containing other materials - such as talc or even cement powder - or you are getting a different drug altogether, which may cause unexpected side effects."

© Daily Telegraph

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