In 1915, French workers in factories near Avignon and Marseille were filling artillery shells with a yellow powder called 2,4-dinitrophenol, or DNP. It was World War I and the French military wanted an explosive that could pierce the sides of ships and other armor. Trinitrophenol, also known as picric acid, had been the chemical of choice, but it was very sensitive, making the shells it filled too unstable. Mixing it with DNP solved that problem.
But soon after DNP entered the factories, several munitions workers began mysteriously losing weight. They were often very sweaty. The strange trend quickly grew alarming. The employees became weak and developed intestinal pain, followed by diarrhea. Their condition worsened even after they left work. Their skin turned yellow. Their pupils contracted. They suffered from a “burning thirst,” as one report later described it. And then there were the fevers—most rose to 104 degrees Fahrenheit, but many exceeded 106 F, even 109. They became confused and agitated. They fell unconscious and died within hours, rigor mortis setting in eerily fast.
One hundred years later, in London, England, Bernard Rebelo was making a small fortune online thanks to DNP. The process was simple: order bulk quantities of the chemical, now used as a fertilizer, from overseas; seal small amounts inside capsules inside his apartment in the northwest part of the city; and ship them off to whoever ordered them through the websites he’d created. A 53-pound drum of the powder cost him just $450 and earned him about $260,000, according to one report. And the money was certain to last. There would always be people who wanted DNP. He knew that none of his customers were really interested in fertilizer. They were after something else.
Eloise Parry was 21 when she purchased DNP through one of Rebelo’s websites. She had no idea about its past, only that it held the promise of effortless weight loss. She was bulimic and the allure of swallowing a capsule to melt away pounds far outweighed whatever concern she had about the risks. She clicked and he shipped.
But whatever skinny destiny Parry thought she was choosing for herself, she was mistaken. Rather, she was the perfect foil for DNP, a deadly bit of chemistry that has feasted for decades on our fixation with the perfect body. As water follows the path of least resistance, so does DNP. Only instead of cracks in the cement, it flows along our warped views of what we look like and what we think we should look like—that, and along the underbelly of the internet.
The munitions worker deaths intrigued two physicians at Stanford University, who began researching the chemical soon after WWI. Windsor Cutting and Maurice Tainter, at the university’s School of Medicine, wondered why weight loss preceded the more harmful effects of the explosive. Their question came at an ideal time. Obesity had become a medical issue. “Overeating,” physician William Osler had written in 1905, was “a vice which is more prevalent than and only a little behind overdrinking in its disastrous effects.” During the 1920s, life insurance companies began factoring weight into their policies. By the 1930s, being fat was no longer the sign of prosperity it once was; it was a health problem. Cutting and Tainter knew that DNP somehow increased metabolism, the rate at which the body burns calories. Perhaps, they thought, it could be made into a treatment for obesity. Their dream was simple: turn the explosive yellow powder into the world’s most powerful diet pill.
While Cutting and Tainter were attempting to harness its metabolic gifts, the chemical was seeping into the world at large, with disconcerting outcomes. In 1934, they reported the death of a physician who used DNP to treat an imaginary case of syphilis. Two others deaths were also reported in 1934: a young girl who’d obtained it from a pharmacist, and a psychiatric patient who was supposedly taking “therapeutic” doses of DNP. Yet the Stanford duo was undaunted. They believed they could make DNP safe and thought that these one-off, oddball deaths would not stand in their way.
Their first study, published in 1933, bolstered their case. Nine people with obesity treated with DNP lost an average of 20 pounds each by the end of the 10-week study. That same year, they presented their findings to the American Public Health Association. By then they had safely treated 113 people with obesity, Tainter told the audience. The side effects had been minor: an itchy rash among a few, loss of taste among some others, and gastrointestinal pain among just three patients. The success had led them to begin dispensing DNP directly from their clinic, he explained. He estimated they’d provided about 1.2 million capsules, each containing 0.1 grams of DNP, to physicians and patients with prescriptions. Combined with other companies selling the chemical, Tainter estimated that about 100,000 people had been treated with DNP. The total fatalities from these doses stood at three, Tainter proudly declared. Europeans and Australians had also begun taking DNP. “It can now be said that dinitrophenol is of definite value as a drug for treating obesity and perhaps some other metabolic disorders,” he and Cutting wrote in 1934 in the American Journal of Public Health. In 1935, they reported that 170 people with obesity who were treated with DNP for an average of three months had each lost about 1.5 pounds per week, with no alteration in their diet. One individual had lost 81 pounds from the treatment.
By then the public was buying DNP by the bottle, packaged under names like Nitromet, Dinitriso and Slim (which featured the silhouette of a woman with long, wavy hair and a perfectly taut physique). But the medical community didn’t entirely share the enthusiasm. Some physicians believed DNP offered nothing beyond what dieting could. One concerned doctor insisted that no safe dose existed, noting that some users suffered severe toxicity to the liver, heart and muscles. In studies of DNP between 1933 and 1937, up to 23 percent of patients developed skin lesions. Others had ear complications, plummeting white blood cell counts, numbness in the feet and legs, jaundice and other issues. Nine people died between 1934 and 1936, three from overdosing, all with nearly instant rigor mortis. Cutting and Tainter did maintain some caution, calling for federal regulators to list DNP as a poison that could be used only with physician supervision. Medical authorities, however, simply refused to accept the therapeutic benefit of DNP. In 1935, the American Medical Association declined to add it to the list of New and Nonofficial Remedies.
But fear of fatness had the collective American mind in a chokehold. By the 1920s, the image of the perfect body had transitioned from plump to thin. Pudge had become unattractive. People now knew about calories and how to count them. Seeking to parse the reason for this new obsession, one physician wondered if it was the advent of working outside the home that had made women concerned about their figures. “A fat girl gets lots of bumps from office furniture in modern designs,” he wrote in The Saturday Evening Post. By the time the AMA had refused to acknowledge DNP as a legitimate treatment, it was already a fixture on pharmacy shelves. In 1934, a savvy physician partnered with a slick advertising agent named Harry Gorov and created Formula 281—capsules containing 1.5 grains of DNP—that was sold widely. A year later, they launched a new-and-improved version containing an even more potent form of the chemical. If customers developed a rash or discoloration, the packaging warned, they should stop the treatment and drink water mixed with a teaspoon of baking soda three times a day. “Here, at last, is a reducing remedy that will bring you a figure men admire and women envy, without danger to your health or change in your regular mode of living,” an original Formula 281 circular stated. And with its next incarnation: “Now literally burning the fat away.”
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration was powerless to stop a chemical it knew very well to be a danger. Despite the health risks of being overweight, obesity was still classified as a cosmetic issue, not a medical problem. Thus the law governing medication—the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act—viewed DNP the same way it viewed lipstick and hand cream. A traveling exhibit designed to illustrate the shortcomings of the Act, nicknamed the “American Chamber of Horrors,” included DNP as a prime example. And the damages were mounting. A nightmarish spike in cataracts was traced back to DNP. The ophthalmologist who publicized the phenomenon in 1935 estimated that 2,500 Americans had gone blind as a result of the drug. Only when Gorov made the mistake of touting Formula 281’s health benefits on the label, in 1936, did the FDA finally have the grounds to accuse him of fraudulent claims. Attempts to convict Gorov fell apart, but in 1938, under the newly passed Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, DNP was finally ruled too toxic for human consumption. By 1940 it had disappeared.
“Now literally burning the fat away.”
— Advertising for a DNP pill from the 1930s
Or so the agency thought. At least two deaths by DNP poisoning made their way into the medical literature between 1940 and 1960. Reports of DNP cataracts continued. And the Russian military is rumored to have given the chemical to its soldiers during World War II to help them stay warm. DNP had not died—it had just gone underground.
An enterprising Russian physician named Nicholas Bachynsky made sure of that. He’d learned about DNP translating Russian medical journals for the U.S. government and, 20 years later, was selling it under the name Mitcal and prescribing it at a chain of weight-loss clinics he founded in Texas. He sold DNP to more than 14,000 people. In 1986, he was convicted of violating drug laws and prohibited from dispensing DNP. The measure did little to stop its scourge. In prison, he met bodybuilder, author of The Underground Steroid Handbook, and convicted felon Dan Duchaine, who started his own DNP business in the 1990s. In 2008, Bachynsky was arrested again in connection with a company aiming to develop DNP as a treatment for cancer.
But by that point, it was like trying to put out a fire with a spray bottle. Internet pharmacies had arrived.
It wasn’t just young women with eating disorders who fell prey to the promise of easy, rapid weight loss. Male body builders had also discovered its powers. On Reddit and fitness forums, they posted pictures of their speedily achieved, perfect six packs and chatted about hunger cravings, their need for ice baths, and girlfriends who were unhappy with sweat-soaked sheets. They called it the “inferno drug.” The Underground Bodybuilder has more than 200 discussion threads on DNP. On The Iron Den, another bodybuilding website, a post titled ‘DNP for Dummies’ provides extensive guidelines on how to use it.
“DNP is magic,” one user told me over email. “You feel the effects of it almost immediately.” He started taking DNP at 500 mg per day—each person sets their own dose—but heavy perspiration and lethargy made him lower his dose to 250 mg and confine his use to the winter months. “Women like you because at night you’re like a heater in bed,” he told me. Experienced users counsel newbies about the risks and how to be smart. “I actually think the people who have died on DNP must be stupid,” the same user said. A shirtless photograph he sent of himself at age 48 shows his well-defined abs, toned pectoral muscles and pronounced biceps. Because DNP required crafty strategizing, he felt less like he was cheating at weight loss and more like he was winning a game. “Learning how to use the drugs is often pretty satisfying,” he said.
Bernard Rebelo’s websites warned shoppers that DNP was not for human consumption. But because the powder is an approved industrial chemical (its uses include dye, wood preserver, herbicide and photographic developer), anyone with an internet connection could order it in bulk from overseas and resell it to vulnerable men and women without breaking the law. The drive for the perfect body, male or female, was enough to keep the DNP business thriving.
Eloise Parry placed her order from Rebelo’s website in April of 2015. On Saturday, April 11, she and her sister, Becky, went to visit their grandmother, who was recovering from hip surgery. She swallowed four capsules of DNP at about four o’clock in the morning and then took another four when she woke up. She sent a text message to her favorite university professor. “I screwed up big time,” she wrote. She had vomited soon after taking the second four capsules and was now scared. “No one is known to survive if they vomit after taking DNP,” she wrote him. “I think I am going to die.” She drove herself to the hospital.
On the afternoon of Sunday, April 12, 2015, Fiona Parry, Eloise’s mother, received a call from the hospital asking her to come in. When Fiona saw her daughter’s car in the parking lot, she figured the matter couldn’t be too serious. “And then they put me in the family room,” she told me over tea in her window-filled kitchen. “It can’t be that bad, it can’t be that bad,” she kept telling herself. Then the doctor arrived. “I’m sorry,” she recalls him saying. “It’s not good news.” Eloise, her second of four children, was dead.
The police were involved immediately. They took Eloise’s handbag from the hospital, they searched her car, they seized her laptop. Eloise’s death wasn’t just tragic; it was, they suspected, a crime.
Sometime before the funeral, the police asked Fiona if she would speak to the media. They wanted to warn the public about DNP and thought the message would hit home if it came from the dead 21-year-old’s mother. She agreed, assuming that she’d be talking to local news outlets. But the BBC, ITV and national newspapers arrived, clogging up the streets of the small village where she lives. Still, she said, “I kind of expected that would be that.” It wasn’t.
Eloise Parry was not alone in her fate. In 2004, physicians from Yale-New Haven Hospital had reported the death of a teenage girl who overdosed on DNP. In 2012, 28-year-old Sean Clethero died from DNP he’d taken to reach his bodybuilding goals. In 2013, Sarah Houston, a 23-year-old medical student at Leeds University, died after taking DNP for 18 months—she’d been “boiled alive,” as The Daily Mail put it. Sarmad Alladin and Chris Mapletoft, also both from the U.K., died in 2013 at age 18. On the morning of Saturday, March 12, 2018, Andrius Gerbutavicius received a phone call from his 21-year-old son. “I’ve overdosed,” he told his father. “I will be dead in probably one hour, no one can help me.” He had taken 20 pills of DNP. They never spoke again. At least 26 people have died from DNP in the U.K. since 2007. In the U.S., the chemical claimed at least 15 people between 2013 and 2017 (and a total of 62 documented deaths since 1918).
The same bureaucracy that plagued the FDA’s early efforts to stop the drug in the 1930s plays the same role now. Doug Shipsey, father of Bethany Shipsey, who died from DNP in 2017 at age 21, discovered that when he tried to get DNP banned from the internet. The problem is that DNP, “doesn’t fit easily within the UK legal structure,” says Simon Thomas, who directs the Newcastle Unit of the National Poison Information Service, in the U.K. The Food Safety Act of 1990 makes it an offense to sell DNP for human consumption, and the country’s Food Standards Agency is responsible for addressing any sales of DNP for that purpose. But because DNP has industrial uses, websites selling it evade legal consequences. “It’s not an offence to just possess it, as it is for heroin,” says Thomas. “That makes it more difficult for law enforcement to take any action.” The Food Standards Agency does a good job of wrangling restaurants into hygienic practices, says Ashok Soni, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, an advocacy organization. But the ability to do something effective about DNP sales is, as Soni puts it, “not within their gift.”
Yet no other government branch will take responsibility. According to the country’s Explosive Regulations of 2014, wet DNP is classified as an explosive. That statute requires certification for anyone acquiring or keeping an explosive and a license for storage and it prohibits placing explosives on the market. But although this law could easily be used to ban DNP from the internet, no government agency has done so. The Food Standards Agency lacks the authority. In an email, Shipsey, who has been working since his daughter’s death to persuade his government to take more stringent action against DNP sales, relayed that his local member of Parliament Robin Walker told him that the Home Office “does not believe anything more can be done at a Ministerial level.”
Shipsey believes the Home Office, a U.K. government department, is hesitant to act because doing so would acknowledge that they could have done so sooner. “Now there’s 26 people that have died in this country and I think they realized that they’re quite complicit in those deaths,” he told me at his home in Worcester, England. When asked about this allegation, a Home Office spokesperson responded, “There has been a number of actions taken by relevant agencies to address issues around DNP, which include engaging with online marketplaces to discourage sale of DNP, raising awareness of the dangers of consuming DNP and supporting law enforcement to prosecute those selling DNP for consumption.” And one government shutting down the sale of DNP has no effect on sellers in other countries. It’s easily found online and just as easily purchased. As of this writing, there is even a website called dnpforsale.com selling small quantities of DNP as a loose powder, and plenty of websites advising people on how to use DNP ‘safely’. A post at tigerfitness.com entitled, “DNP: The Fat-Burning Bug Spray” refers to the chemical as “arguably the most dangerous drug used in bodybuilding,” but then goes on to advise how to use it.
And access to DNP could become even more complicated in the coming years. At Yale University, Gerald Shulman, a chemist who studies diabetes, has resurrected the laboratory research of DNP, this time as a treatment for diabetes and the liver conditions that frequently lead to it. He has created a version of the chemical that heads straight for the liver once it enters the body and has reversed diabetes in mice, rats and non-human primates. “I am cautiously optimistic that similar effects would be observed in humans,” says Shulman. He isn’t alone in his enthusiasm for the clinical promise of DNP. A company called Mitochon is developing its own version of DNP that, the company says, could be useful in treating Huntington disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, nerve damage, hearing loss and neuromuscular diseases. All of these possible (though still far off) advances may also make it easier for anyone who wants DNP to obtain it.
The Daily Mail’s characterization was accurate: DNP does boil a person alive from the inside. The cells in our body produce energy through a process known as the Krebs cycle, which culminates in the production of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This chemical supplies the energy for routine, crucial bodily processes like muscle contraction and nerve impulses. DNP stops the formation of ATP. But the energy has already been generated and without ATP, the body is left scrambling for a place to put it. The only option is heat. Instead of a machine built for many tasks, the body becomes nothing more than an electric kettle with one singular outlet for the energy it contains. The metabolism accelerates, leading to sweating and fever. The pounds begin melting away.
The human body functions within a fairly narrow window of temperature—no less than about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and no more than about 106 degrees. Spending too much time on either side of that range is dangerous. When our temperature exceeds 106 F, the body malfunctions. It can’t cool itself down, leaving the body to burn. The overheating leads to muscle contraction, dehydration and confusion. And dehydration forces the muscle cells to break down, spilling their contents into the bloodstream—including potassium, which can stop the heart (that’s why it’s used in executions). “The problem with DNP is that it works, you will lose weight,” says Johann Grundlich, an emergency medicine physician at Whittington Hospital, in London. “Unfortunately it just kills a bunch of people as well.” The high body temperature at the time of death forces the muscles to contract, accounting for the rigor mortis–like stiffness reported with so many DNP casualties.
An overdose of DNP is treatable if it’s caught soon enough. Though rare, people have survived overdoses. The body temperature can be lowered with ice packs and cold fluids injected intravenously. An anesthetic helps with confusion and agitation, says Grundlich, who encountered his first DNP overdose in 2014 and now teaches physicians about the proper care of hyperthermia. An injection of insulin and sugar can help reduce the amount of potassium in the bloodstream. A dialysis machine can do the same. Charcoal can help stop the gastrointestinal system from absorbing the chemical. “They can survive,” Grundlich told me in the hospital café. But no DNP-specific antidote exists and not many people who require hospital attention leave the building alive. “All the ones I’ve dealt with have died,” he says.
Still, Shipsey blames the death of his daughter in part on the lack of information on DNP treatment. He and his wife, Carole, watched their daughter die in an overcrowded hospital under the care of staff who never sought instruction on how to treat DNP during the hours she languished in the corridor, sweating through the gowns and growing increasingly agitated. The hospital later admitted neglect in her care, though they bore no financial responsibility because her death was ruled a suicide, a conclusion her psychiatrist and parents refute.
On Feb. 24, 2016, the police raided two London properties, one in Sudbury Hill and one in Ealing, housing large quantities of DNP. The discovery was handed over to legal authorities because the chemical was being sold from those locations as a food supplement for human consumption, which British law prohibits. In September of that year, Fiona Parry received a call from a prosecuting attorney. Eighteen months had passed since Eloise’s death, and she was trying to move on. But the law wasn’t. The police had found the man they believed had sold Eloise the DNP. A man named Bernard Rebelo was selling DNP across southern England out of the property in Ealing. Rebelo, 30, and his two business partners, Albert Hyunh and Mary Roberts, were arrested. Hyunh and Roberts were later released on grounds of insufficient evidence, but Rebelo’s case went to trial.
The defense argued the obvious: Rebelo’s websites stated that DNP was not safe to consume. He wasn’t selling it as a diet aid but rather an industrial chemical. The jury did not buy it. If he intended to sell DNP as a fertilizer, then why the capsules? Why did he name his websites drmusclepharmaceuticals.com or bionicpharmaceuticals.com? They found Rebelo guilty in the death of Eloise Parry. He was convicted on two counts, unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter and gross negligence manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. It was, says Graham Henson, a lead prosecutor on the case, “the first time an online seller of DNP has been charged and convicted of manslaughter.”
The prosecution’s victory was short-lived. As it turns out, a defendant cannot be convicted on two separate counts of manslaughter in the U.K., a technicality that overturned Rebelo’s conviction in 2019. Though he remained in prison for violating food safety laws, he’ll be retried on a single charge of manslaughter in a trial that starts on Feb. 10.
“I’ve overdosed…I will be dead in probably one hour, no one can help me.”
— 21-year-old Andrius Gerbutavicius
Other DNP sellers have been caught. This month, Barry Clint Wright will be sentenced in Florida after pleading guilty to illegal sales of DNP. In May of 2019, Scott Edward Cavell, of California, was sentenced to three years for the same charge. But no other seller has been found guilty of participating in the death of a customer.
As John Horton sees it, even if Rebelo is convicted again, justice will not have been completely served. In 2007, Horton, a former prosecutor, founded LegitScript, based in Portland, Oregon. The company monitors the internet for problematic products and services, alerting clients—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Visa, the federal government, and many others—about any unsavory activity on their platforms. That includes the sale of DNP.
Horton first became aware of DNP around 2012 and added it to the list of products warranting vigilance. LegitScript tries to identify “any website that comes online selling DNP in a way that looks like it’s for weight loss or illicit purposes,” he said. He cannot recall a single website selling DNP for legitimate reasons in all the years he’s been keeping tabs on it.
Sites that host independent sellers (Amazon and the like) or domain name registrars like GoDaddy typically respond quickly when LegitScript analysts alert them about the presence of DNP. A consumer website will remove the seller. A registrar will terminate the URL. And the company also alerts domain name registrars that are not LegitScript clients pro bono when analysts find new pharmacies selling DNP. Most of the time, these registrars take the URL down with minutes or hours. But not all. Horton refers to these as safe havens. “They ignore the notification and don’t care,” he says.
That appears to have been the case with Rebelo’s websites. According to Horton’s testimony at the trial, LegitScript alerted the domain name registrar about sites selling DNP illegally. The URL stayed live. A few weeks later, Eloise Parry purchased DNP from the site and died.
No domain name registrars have been charged in illegal DNP sales or related deaths. Horton believes they should be. He emphasizes that if the company isn’t aware that the chemical is being sold on its platform or a domain it hosts, then it bears no responsibility. But receiving an alert changes that dynamic in his view. “Once you have notified the domain name registrar and given them credible evidence and information that a domain name is being used to facilitate the sale of DNP and the registrar does nothing,” says Horton, “then I personally believe they are culpable.” Any company that knowingly made money from DNP, says Horton, is responsible for any deaths resulting from those sales.
Eloise Parry had a difficult time as a teenager. She rebelled at school, racking up suspensions for drinking, swearing at teachers and, once, trying to start a fire. She spent time with unemployed adults, often for entire weekends. At one point she accused her mother of locking her in her bedroom and not feeding her. “I didn’t do either of those,” says Fiona, “but she clearly believed I did.” Eventually she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. She struggled for years with her mental health and also grew reliant on disability benefits. Photographs of Parry show her increasingly drawn to tattoos, piercings and dramatic makeup, but always with the same open, clear complexion, as if youth and innocence were refusing to give up their claim. By the time she was 21, she was turning her life around. She’d enrolled in university and had almost earned her degree. She hoped to become a social worker. Fiona believed that finding a purpose had lifted her daughter out of a bad place. “You shouldn’t die at 21,” says Fiona. “She didn’t get time to live.”
Fiona had her daughter’s body cremated. The idea of deciding on a burial plot felt impossible at the time, so she chose to have ashes that she could hold onto until she knew where she wanted to leave them. “I still haven’t decided where to leave her,” she says. “If anybody’s got any ideas, I’m listening.”