The Science And History Of A Pesticide-Turned-Diet Pill

A drug banned from human consumption in 1938 has made a recent comeback in online bodybuilder forums.

In 2012, Sean Cleathero died from drinking an explosive/pesticide mixed with water. His gym had sold it to him as a weight loss drug. The mixture gave him a fever of over 107 degrees and killed him within eight hours, even after he received care at the Wycombe Hospital outside of London.

The case came up in the news again recently because three men who worked at the gym are on trial for manslaughter. A few weeks ago, a review of data from the U.K.’s National Poisons Information Service linked 30 complaints and five deaths to the same substance Cleathero drank. What were all these adults doing chugging an industrial chemical? They were following the advice of 1) some Stanford University doctors from the 1930s and/or 2) forums on the Internet.

Scientifically known as 2,4-dinitrophenol, the chemical actually does make people lose weight. Only it does so in a terrifying way. It decouples the two reactions that the cells’ powerhouse, its mitochondria, use to turn food into energy. Starved for resources, the cells in the body start consuming fat in the body. So far, so good, right? But what happens to all that energy the mitochondria would have made?

Instead of turning it into useable energy molecules, called ATP, it’s transformed into excess heat. Those who take dangerous doses of dinitrophenol raise their internal body temperatures to such an extent that it damages the protein in their bodies. Think of how an egg white changes when you heat it by boiling it or frying it. Egg whites are nearly all protein; how they react to heat is how your body’s proteins react to heat. Very high doses of dinitrophenol can cause immediate rigor mortis after death.

DNP (as it’s also known) has some other effects, too, including liver and kidney problems and cataracts. Doctors have known about these effects for decades. Remember those 1930s Stanford doctors? They were the first to try to treat their obese patients with dinitrophenol. They didn’t make the chemical; they knew about it from dye and munitions factories, which used it. One of the problems munitions factory workers suffered was weight loss, they knew. And they knew workers sometimes died, too. It seems they thought they could avoid deaths by closely supervising their patients, but they underestimated how word would spread and people would want to treat themselves.

After the Stanford team published its first papers on treating obesity with dinitrophenol, a small craze for the chemical followed. People bought it over the counter at drugstores. Enough of them suffered ill effects that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declared dinitrophenol illegal to sell for human consumption in 1938. The idea of using DNP for weight loss disappeared for a while.

It popped up again at least once before now, when a doctor re-discovered the Stanford papers in the 1980s and opened a clinic in Texas. The FDA shut him down.

It’s unclear who “discovered” the papers yet again more recently, but it is clear the Internet had a role. The papers are easy to find online and wonderful to read. They have little jargon. They so naively refer to World War I as “the war.” They state dosages. But how do you know how much you’re actually getting in that pill you order off the Internet? Or what dose is right for you? Tolerances vary widely.

The earliest, post-1980s report I found of someone dying after consuming DNP to lose weight was published in 2004. Several reports followed, but so did things like YouTube videos of before and after pictures of dinitrophenol users and detailed guides on bodybuilder forums. Bodybuilders’ websites sold the chemical in pill form.

Perhaps DNP will disappear again soon, however. A number of U.K. newspapers have reported on DNP-related deaths. I saw a lot of YouTube comments on DNP videos trying to warn others away. So while the Internet made it possible for the idea to spread more widely than it ever did in the 1930s or 1980s, maybe our connectivity will also help spread word of DNP’s dangers.