DYING to be PRETTY
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2021
The global beauty industry is worth more than $500 billion and the rise of social media is fuelling a further boom. But as Genevieve Gannon discovers, buying creams, powders and pills online is fraught with danger. They could be fake, or even fatal.
Genevieve Gannon

The scene of the tragedy was an Adelaide family home on a spring evening six years ago. Nineteen-year-old Louisa Fioretti had been listening to melancholy music and roaming internet chat rooms when something inside her snapped.

She had always struggled with anxiety, but the condition had become particularly acute during her Year 12 studies when her body-image problems mounted and her relationship with food deteriorated. Her phone screensaver was a fit, beautiful woman to keep her focused on achieving the body she wanted.

That day – October 12, 2015 – Louisa had received a parcel from Colorado, USA. It was labelled “Women’s Multivitamin Health Supplement” but inside was a potent weight-loss agent that shady online sellers claim “annihilates” body fat and appetite. In what is believed to have been an impulsive act, Louisa opened the bottle and swallowed a large number of the weight-loss pills.

The coronial report on what followed makes for harrowing reading. As the pills began to act, Louisa called triple-0 and told them what she’d done. The so-called fat-blasting ingredient was a chemical called DNP (or 2,4-Dinitrophenol).

Paramedic Andrew O’Connor had never heard of it, so as the ambulance sped to the Fioretti home, he researched the chemical with a growing sense of dread. DNP was marketed as a diet pill in 1933, but withdrawn from sale after just five years because of the danger it posed. The compound was initially used in the manufacture of explosives, dyes and wood preservatives.

When Andrew reached Louisa, her first words to him were, “This is going to get a lot worse.” She showed him the multivitamin bottle and explained that the packaging was a decoy to get the pills through Customs. From her research online, she knew what lay ahead. “You get really hot,” she said. “Your heart beats really fast.”

As Louisa arrived at South Australia’s Flinders Medical Centre just before 8.30pm, her condition rapidly and dramatically deteriorated. The medical team did everything they could to save her, but as NSW clinical toxicologist Kylie McArdle explains, there is no antidote to DNP toxicity.

“Every single intensive care-type life support machine was used for that young girl and she still died very quickly,” Kylie says. “It’s highly toxic. If you get toxic, there’s not much we can do.”

The SA coroner recently reviewed Louisa’s death, but made no recommendations because DNP is already prohibited for human use. Nevertheless, it is creeping into the country. In 2020, the NSW Poisons Information Centre published an article in the Medical Journal of Australia about the increasing number of people who have called about DNP toxicity in recent years.

The pattern is mirrored in the UK, where a man was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter last year for selling DNP pills to a 21-year-old woman with an eating disorder. Eloise Parry, of Shropshire, had bulimia when she died from the chemical in 2015.

The BBC reported that, after Eloise collapsed, she sent a text from hospital, saying: “It’s not going to matter how skinny I am if I’m dead.”

Louisa’s case was unusual in that she took a very high dose of DNP, but far, far smaller amounts can kill. There have been three other DNPrelated deaths in Australia since 2015.

Despite the dangers, DNP has a thriving life online, where it’s marketed to bodybuilders and young women as a fat-stripping agent. Fitness forums teem with discussions on where to get it and how to use it “safely”. One Reddit user cautions it is “death in a capsule”.

“DNP certainly is a problem,” Kylie says.

Doctors are concerned that anyone searching online for ways to lose weight may stumble across the chemical and not realise what it is. In this way, DNP is symbolic of a much larger public health threat – the online black market for prohibited and counterfeit supplements, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

Black-market beauty

Once upon a time, counterfeit perfumes, creams and cosmetics were sold in flea markets where the “element of dodginess” led people to understand the risk, says leading intellectual property lawyer Miriam Stiel. This is no longer the case. Now, fake and potentially fatal products are all just a few clicks away.

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