On 11 April 2015, Ella Parry stood beside her small pink car, outside her council flat in Shrewsbury, watching the road. She was waiting for her mother to drop off her 17-year-old sister, Becky. The sisters were planning to go shopping together in Chester.
“Ella got into her car as we arrived, so I just caught a glimpse of her,” recalled her mother, Fiona Parry. “The sun was shining and Ella was smiling.” Ella was 21, tall and slim, with choppy blond hair. That day, as always, she wore full makeup – pale foundation, red lips, black Amy Winehouse-style eyeliner. Parry waved as they drove off. She would never see Ella alive again.
Since her early teens, Ella had been troubled. “She began to be unhappy about who she was, and it escalated,” said Parry. There were constant rows at home, she was excluded from school a few times for disruptive behaviour, and on one occasion the police were called after she tried to set fire to a building. At 17, Ella left home, and referred herself to social services. She was given accommodation and referred for mental-health assessment. She was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, characterised by emotional instability.
She was also, however, potentially brilliant. After she left home she did A-levels and went on to university. She seemed to be finding her direction in life: she worked as a “young health champion” on a project for vulnerable 11- to 18-year-olds. An NHS manager who worked with her described her as “incredibly talented”. “Everyone gravitated towards Ella, with her punky hair that was sometimes pink and that she wore sometimes with flowers in it,” said Karen Higgins, who met Ella in 2013 while on secondment to lead a project with Shropshire Youth Services. “She really understood young people and she had so much time and compassion for them.”
But Ella was struggling. By 2014, she was in the grip of an obsessive eating disorder. She had moved past the stage of using laxatives and over-the-counter diet pills. Through that winter and into 2015, Ella made entries in her diary that revealed her distress: “If only I could take a knife and cut all of the disgusting folds of fat out of my body”; “I hate my boobs, legs, face, stomach, arms, feet … ”; “My belly sticks out. I hate everything.”
In February 2015, she wrote in her diary, “I wish I could rip my heart out so I don’t have to feel this pain any more.” Convinced that the only thing that would end her anguish would be losing more weight, she scoured the internet for solutions. She read voraciously, on forums frequented by others who were as ill and distressed as she was, and, though she did not know it, by drug dealers looking for customers. Eventually, she found what she was looking for, a product that promised to “burn” excess fat more effectively than any other: the chemical substance 2,4-Dinitrophenol, known as DNP. She placed an order online just as easily as she might have ordered a book or a dress.
DNP is a lethal poison. “There is no such thing as a safe level of use,” Simon Thomas, professor of clinical pharmacology at Newcastle University, told me. “You can move from well to critical to dead within a few hours. What begins with sweating, high temperature and rapid heartbeat can rapidly progress to muscular spasms, seizures and multi-organ failure. Its fatality rate is very high indeed.”
Between 2007 and 2020, the UK National Poisons Information Service recorded 138 cases of poisoning and 26 deaths caused by DNP. Additional data from the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the UK’s food safety watchdog, suggests that at least six more people have died after taking DNP in this period. Many of those who have taken the poison and survived have suffered from cataracts, as well as lasting damage to the heart and nervous system.
Last year, in a strongly worded letter to the Home Office, the then president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, Ash Soni, posed a simple question about DNP, to which grieving families are still seeking an answer: “Why can’t it just be banned?”
In the UK, it is not an offence to own or sell DNP. It is legally used as an explosive, a fertiliser, a pesticide and a dye. It is illegal to sell it for human consumption, and yet it seems to be remarkably easy to do so. With a little bit of searching, you can find DNP on websites promoting supplements and diet aids, somewhere among the fat burners, appetite suppressants, carb-blockers, protein shakes, potions, powders and tablets promising to assist weight loss, muscle building and body sculpting. In a largely unregulated market that targets people who are often vulnerable, you will be able to order up an industrial chemical, delivered in easy-to-swallow capsules, and liable to result in a horrible death.
The dangers to human health of 2,4-Dinitrophenol have been known for more than a century. During the first world war, when DNP powder was combined with picric acid to make howitzer shells, hundreds of workers in munitions factories in France and the US became ill – and 63 died – after being exposed to it.
In the 30s, US scientists conducted research that found taking DNP orally could cause the rapid breakdown of fats and carbohydrates, leading to dramatic weight loss. Researchers told the American Public Health Association that the side-effects noted in people who took part in trials were for the most part “minor”. With no law to stop it, the market was soon flooded with DNP-based products. Thousands of women bought the miraculous tablets over the counter. The makers of Formula 281, one version of the “reducing remedy”, claimed in 1935 it would “bring you a figure men admire and women envy”, and that there were no risks associated with the tablets.
By that time, however, the dangers had already become apparent. Doctors were seeing patients with symptoms of acute poisoning: overheating, damage to the liver, heart, respiratory system and muscles. In 1935, one ophthalmologist suggested that some 2,500 people in the US had gone blind from cataracts caused by DNP use. Between 1934 and 1936, nine people are known to have died after taking DNP. In 1938, DNP was deemed “extremely dangerous and not fit for human consumption” in the US – Canada, the UK and other European countries followed suit.
After it was regulated, few cases of DNP poisoning were seen for about 80 years, says Simon Thomas. Then, around 2010, at the point when internet marketing and the craze for extreme fitness coincided, DNP sales took off again. At first, the main users were male body builders, many of whom bought it from the owners of their gyms, who in turn had ordered in bulk from internet suppliers. “As the decade went on, we also began to see women with complex psychological conditions like bulimia and anorexia taking it,” Thomas said.
Selling DNP is highly lucrative. A dealer can import a 25kg drum from a factory in China or India, where much of it is produced, for £350. They can package it in capsules and then sell them to customers for about £1 each, either in pure form, or mixed with caffeine and turmeric. A dealer can make between £100,000 and £200,000 per drum, and might handle six to 10 drums at a time. Bought and sold online, it is an international trade, and notoriously hard to police.
“The dealers move from website to website, or use third-party platforms and anonymous forums and chat channels,” says David Khalaf of the US-based company LegitScript, which monitors the internet for legal and regulatory compliance. “They direct people from public to private forums. They run rogue internet pharmacies. They ship DNP and mislabel it. A lot of it is sent by mail.” These dealers know their market well. One website carries a statement that the product is “not for human consumption”, while selling capsules of DNP packaged to look like over-the-counter painkillers. Another states that DNP is not for human consumption but goes on: “An overdose can be deadly. Please be smart about how you go about it. It never hurts to start small.” It also offers “stealth shipping”.
There are plenty of dire warnings to potential consumers in the online reviews, often presented alongside claims about the effectiveness of the chemical if taken “properly”. There are forums for the “DNP community” on which advice is given: “Respect the chemical, you will be OK”. Dealers present themselves as pharmacists, offering advice on dosage and how to take it along with other products. Online articles about DNP are often presented like peer-reviewed academic papers. One example from 2018, reviewed by someone claiming to be a “health professional”, states that “Overall DNP is an amazing compound that truly works”, while also noting “it is literal poison and when abused causes death”.
“The trouble is,” said Thomas, “that even if people know the risks, there will be those who will still use it, out of desperation.”
Abigail Davies, 28, who took DNP more than a decade ago, recalls the compulsion to take extreme risks with her health. Her anorexia began when she was about nine years old, living in Swansea in an unhappy family situation. Her parents split up and she felt rejected by her father. “When I was a child my eating disorder presented itself to me like a gentle companion,” she said. “It gradually got more aggressive. It convinced me it was the only voice I could really trust. Reading my diaries from that time, I can see it wasn’t going to stop until it killed me.”
Abigail was repeatedly admitted to hospital, where she was torn between wanting to recover and being avid to learn how to be better at anorexia. “It is a very competitive illness,” she said. “If you saw someone who was smaller than you, you’d have to get smaller than them. You had to be the best at it.”
When she was 14, Abigail ordered DNP online, using a debit card to pay. Relying on advice from internet forums, she took what was recommended as a first dose. “It was instantly clear it was different from anything else I’d taken,” she said. “It was as if someone had struck a match in my stomach. I was sweating profusely, hallucinating. I was disassociating – I wasn’t sure I was alive. I was lying on the sofa and I couldn’t get my limbs to move. I had palpitations. I guess there was a point when I thought ‘this could be it’, and I would die. And I was OK with that.”
She was hospitalised shortly after the DNP episode. Her recovery was long, and there were further periods in hospital, but she had reached a turning point. While she was in hospital, her mother had been put in touch with the eating disorder organisation Beat. When Abigail came out of hospital, she went to Beat as well, and now – between work as a sports reporter – volunteers for them as an ambassador, an eloquent guide to a lethal zone where the vulnerable meet the ruthless. “Eating disorders make you hate yourself,” she told me. “I read that DNP was an explosive, that there was no safe dose, that there was no antidote. I thought, if it is that severe, it must be good. If it made me feel horrific, I felt I must be on track to lose more weight. Knowing it could kill you just isn’t a deterrent.”
Ella’s relationship with her mother was fraught, and she had never known her father, who had left before Ella was born. “When she was 18 months old, I was with a new partner, and we had three more children,” said Parry. “He treated Ella less well than them. One time there was a family photo being taken and he only wanted his children in it. We went our separate ways when Ella was 10.”
As Ella got older, her mother, a chemistry teacher, sensed her growing unhappiness, though she did not understand it. “She just kept on getting naughtier and more challenging,” she said. “She made friends easily, but they didn’t stay around. She asked a lot and was very volatile. For me, a lot of the time she was just so difficult to be with that it was easier just to step away,” Parry said, adding that it was her sister, Becky, who bore the brunt of those bad years. “Ella relied on her a lot.”
When she was 17, Ella told social services that her mother was emotionally abusive. They gave her a room in a house with other young people, some of them homeless, some leaving state care. Six months later, Ella was given a one-bedroom flat in a pleasant part of Shrewsbury.
Her mother said she tried hard to keep her close. “When she called, I jumped. I helped her to get her car. I sorted out her garden. But she got very much worse in terms of emotional instability. She took a lot of meds. At one point she was sectioned. I visited her in the psychiatric unit, and asked her if she would come home, but she didn’t want to.” At some point, Ella gave instructions that her mother was not to be contacted when she was in hospital, and was not to visit.
Ella’s eating disorder was a particularly difficult subject for them. Ella knew her mother had had an eating disorder as a young woman, but they didn’t talk about it. Ella didn’t tell her mother when she started seeing a bulimia specialist but Parry knew because she saw an appointment card in Ella’s flat. “I could see that her teeth were ruined from vomiting,” Parry said. “But she was 18 by then, and I had no right to know anything.”
In 2013, Ella began studying at Wrexham Glyndwr University, on the BA course in families and childhood studies. She was described by a college spokesperson as an enthusiastic, popular and capable student who was “always championing the promotion of positive wellbeing for children and young people”. Her social media accounts were full of references to services for young people, including advice on how to talk to your teenage child about their feelings. She had not cut off contact with her mother. While she was studying, Ella would ask Fiona to proofread her assignments and help her with bibliographies. In 2015, she had a year to go before graduation. “I think if she’d finished the course she would have been all right,” said Parry.
Karen Higgins has no doubt that she would. She saw in Ella someone who was probably on her way to getting a first-class degree, and who could have become an educational psychologist, a teacher or a youth worker. “We called her our butterfly,” she said. “She was extrovert and warm and full of energy. She understood the young people – she got them. She was helping them to transition, to grow and bloom. They respected and looked up to her. I knew she suffered from anxiety and mental pain, and that she had an eating disorder – she was very open about it.”
Ella made good friends on the health champions project, though Higgins said it was clear her closest friend was her sister, Becky. Leanne Hampton was 15 and a full-time carer for her grandmother when she met Ella, who was a few years older than her. “I was going through a very bad time and she helped me so much,” she said. “She really turned my life around. She used to tell me I was great when I didn’t feel that about myself at all. She was amazing, just a beacon of hope to so many people.”
Though she could inspire others to believe in themselves, Ella was unable to overcome her own dips into self-loathing: “Despite what anyone convinces me to believe, it always leads back to how pathetic, useless and annoying I am,” she wrote in her diary. “I need to be smaller … ”
Ella’s eating disorder was relentless. In February 2015, she placed her first order for DNP online, using PayPal. When the capsules came, by post in a plain envelope, they were labelled “Optimum Gold”. Soon after, she began to complain of aches and pains. She took a lot of painkillers. One day at college, she collapsed and was taken to hospital with a fever, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. “Her skin had a yellow tinge and they thought she had jaundice,” said Parry.
Ella told her doctor she was taking DNP. During a long discussion Ella had admitted to her GP that she had been upping her intake. The doctor warned her that it was very dangerous. The counsellor Ella was seeing at this time noted that she looked fragile, and seemed defeated, and that she was still determined to lose more weight.
There were several other emergencies in early 2015. In March, after collapsing and being rushed to hospital in Wrexham, Ella texted a friend: “I fucked up. A and E. DNP overdose. Feel so fucking stupid.” Three days later she texted: “I don’t want to die. I never meant to hurt myself. I just felt so desperate.” She told her friend she wanted to get into a residential eating disorders clinic. She also ordered more DNP.
Despite Ella’s inner turmoil, the sisters’ day out shopping in Chester on 11 April went well. Ella talked about her college assignments and about wanting to go travelling. Becky felt her sister was “in a good place”, although she also noticed that Ella seemed to be struggling physically. She’d complained of a sore leg, and she kept getting out of breath.
Later, after Ella had said goodbye to Becky and was back at her flat alone, in the words of her mother, she “crashed”. She devoured as much food as she could, made herself sick, then repeated the cycle. At 4am, she took four DNP capsules, and a few hours later she took four more. She began to vomit.
Fearful of what was to come, she drove herself to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, 15 minutes from her flat. She arrived at about 11.30am, parked and walked into A&E. Her temperature was rising rapidly, and she was terrified. From the hospital, she texted one of her college lecturers and said she was sorry for being “so stupid”. “Thank you for everything,” she wrote. “I never deserved it.” She texted a friend: “I fucked up big time … I think I am going to die … I love you so much.”
Staff tried to cool Ella down, but the poison was attacking her cells, releasing fierce heat within her. Her organs were shutting down. She was shouting, writhing, frothing at the mouth. She went into cardiac arrest. At 3.25pm, Ella died.
Parry got a call from the hospital asking her to come in. She saw Ella’s car in the car park. “It all felt so unreal,” she said. A doctor came and broke the news to her. Leaving the hospital, she saw Ella’s car again. This time, it was surrounded by police tape. The car, and Ella’s flat, had become crime scenes.
A search of Ella’s computer showed that she had bought the DNP that killed her from a website named Dr Muscle Pharmaceuticals. The payments she had made had gone into a bank account in Iceland, from which they were directed to an account in the name of Bernard Rebelo, at an address in Harrow, north London. Because the sale of DNP for human consumption is an offence under food-safety law, it fell to Harrow council to lead the investigation.
On 24 February 2016, members of Harrow’s environmental health team, accompanied by police officers, turned into Herga Court in Harrow on the Hill and drove down a leafy private driveway. Observed by security cameras, they entered an apartment building and arrived at Rebelo’s door with a search warrant.
The investigators were hoping to access computers, in order to follow a trail of payments. To their astonishment, when Rebelo opened his door, they found his factory. Inside the house, one of the rooms contained two large plastic barrels, labelling machines, pill-making equipment and other items, including some linked to the preparation of steroids. Rebelo had just taken delivery of a new consignment of DNP.
The officers seized Rebelo’s computers. Harrow council staff spent months trawling through his emails and online forums. They discovered that Rebelo began selling steroids in 2012, and had sourced DNP from a factory in China soon afterwards. He had hundreds of customers in the US and Europe. On online forums, under the handle DrMusclePharma, Rebelo had offered specious reassurance to customers concerned about the side-effects they were experiencing after taking DNP. He suggested they adjust the dosage.
Among Rebelo’s files, there was one particularly chilling set of documents. He had downloaded and saved media reports about Ella’s death, and the inquest two months later, at which it emerged that DNP had killed her. In the following weeks and months, he continued to trade. He continued to trade even after another of his customers was hospitalised in 2015, prompting Interpol to issue a global health warning about DNP.
Rebelo was skilled at avoiding detection. He shut down websites, reopened them with different names and changed hosts. Payments were routed through multiple accounts in different countries. In 2014, Interpol had warned a Canada-based website registrar that several companies, including Rebelo’s, were operating as illegal pharmacies. Accredited registrars, which allocate and administer domain names under the auspices of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names (ICANN), are obliged to “respond appropriately” to reports of abuse. However, the registrar did not shut down the site, and did not act on several further requests from US and Canadian health authorities.
After Ella’s death, the US Food and Drugs Administration wrote to the registrar informing them that Ella had “likely received the DNP” from a site registered with them and asking it “to suspend and lock these domain names before any additional people die or become seriously ill”. Finally, they complied. Rebelo found another registrar, and continued trading.
The case against Rebelo came to trial at London’s central criminal court in June 2018. Rebelo admitted that Ella had bought DNP from him. He claimed he had sold it only as an industrial chemical, and that he had made it clear it was not safe for human consumption. His girlfriend was cleared of a money-laundering charge, and another man accused in relation to the case was also acquitted. Rebelo was convicted on two counts of the manslaughter of Eloise Parry.
He appealed the verdict on a technicality and a full retrial was ordered. The months that followed were agonising for the Parry family. However, in February 2020, after the new trial, a jury unanimously convicted Rebelo of manslaughter by gross negligence and of supplying a poison falsely described as suitable for use as a slimming aid. The presiding judge, Mrs Justice Whipple, sentencing Rebelo to seven years, said he had been motivated by financial gain to exploit vulnerable and desperate people. Eloise Parry had a mental illness: “By selling her DNP, you caused her death,” she said. “It is that simple.”
Fiona Parry had never heard of DNP before she lost her daughter to it. While waiting for Rebelo to come to trial, she was contacted by another bereaved parent, who had read about Ella’s death. Doug Shipsey’s daughter Bethany died in 2017 after taking DNP she had ordered from a dealer in Ukraine. Shipsey was campaigning to get the UK government to stop the sale of DNP. In 2018, they were contacted by Andrius Gerbutavicius, shortly after his 21-year-old son, Vaidotas, had become the latest victim of DNP in the UK.
The Gerbutavicius family had moved to London from Lithuania when Vaidotas was six. He was smart, learned English quickly, made friends and did well at school. By 2018, he was working in construction and living with his girlfriend. On 10 March that year, Gerbutavicius had been getting ready for his work as a construction manager when he got a panic-stricken call from his son, saying he had overdosed on DNP. “My wife and I jumped in the car,” Gerbutavicius told me. “At the hospital, my son was vomiting yellow stuff. I asked a medic if it was life-threatening, and he said it was serious, but not necessarily deadly.”
But Vaidotas’ condition deteriorated rapidly. He was put into a medically induced coma and for 40 minutes doctors gave him CPR, but he died less than two hours after being admitted to hospital.
After his death, Gerbutavicius talked to his son’s friends. “They knew he was taking DNP, but they had no idea how dangerous it was,” he said. Gerbutavicius and his wife had never known how troubled their son’s relationship with his weight was. “As a kid, he was a bit chubby,” Gerbutavicius told me. “When he started to lose weight after his 18th birthday, we thought it was a good thing. We didn’t think anything was wrong, though it did seem sudden.” Looking back, he recalled that Vaidotas seemed not to feel the cold – he would have his bedroom window open in the middle of winter. He now knows that heightened temperature is a side-effect of DNP use.
Vaidotas’s phone was not locked, and in the desperate and grieving days after his death, Gerbutavicius scoured his emails and bank transactions to find out how his son had obtained the deadly poison that had killed him. Then he laid a trap for the dealer. Using his dead son’s name and details, he placed a new order. “Ten days later it arrived in the post,” he said. Gerbutavicius handed the package over to the FSA.
He was shocked to learn that the man who had sold Vaidotas the lethal DNP was already under observation by the authorities. His name was Barry Clint Wright, and he lived in North Carolina. In 2016, Wright had sold DNP to a young American woman with an eating disorder. The woman, whose family asked me to refer to her only by her initials, CW, died that same year from a heart problem that was most likely caused by her consumption of DNP. Unaware of her death, Wright continued to email CW offering her special deals on DNP. Her mother reported him to the police. Undercover officers bought DNP from him several times in 2016. His website was shut down. However, he proceeded to set up several more, and continued to trade in DNP with tragic consequences.
From his base in Monroe, North Carolina, using the tag “fat burning guru”, Wright had sent out more than 3,000 orders to clients all over the world, including Vaidotas in London. Some were marked as bee pollen. He had used multiple websites and mainstream platforms, often leading potential buyers into more private forums. He displayed before-and-after photos of clients, who got a discount for sending them to him. Wright was arrested in May 2018 after another of his clients, a 46-year-old man in Georgia, US, died after taking DNP. He pleaded guilty to selling an unapproved drug with intent to mislead.
At Wright’s sentencing hearing in Florida in February 2020, Gerbutavicius delivered a victim-impact statement. “Since our son died we have been blaming each other for not looking after him, for not looking at what he took, what he bought online,” he said. Two years after his son’s death, he said, he sometimes wakes up forgetting that his son is gone, and then the pain and the anger start up all over again. Imposing the maximum sentence of seven years, Judge Paul Byron said he was “dumbfounded” that the sentence available to him was so low. It was “menial”, he said, for a man who had “sold poison without compunction”.
The families continue to support each other in their efforts to get DNP taken off the market. Shipsey and Parry have both contacted and confronted dealers. After a campaign, a book promoting DNP use has been removed from Amazon.
Gerbutavicius sent me a link to a chilling video in which a masked man mask welcomes entrants to “my store”, where the one product on offer is DNP. “What I’m doing is fucking illegal and I know that,” the dealer says. He complains about getting shut down and moved on, and about having to ship his product illegally just because “it is a hazardous material”. Gerbutavicius said he and other bereaved parents have repeatedly reported this store to the authorities in the US and the UK. “We have managed to close it down dozens of times by reporting it direct to the website hosting companies. And it’s always springing back to life on a new server. This is living proof that the governments don’t care,” he said.
“The situation is crazy,” Gerbutavicius said. “This is an explosive, and you are meant to have a licence to sell explosives. Why is this law not used? How can it be right that a lethal poison like this comes under food safety laws?” DNP is regulated under the 1990 Food Safety Act.
The parents found out that they were not the first to try to change the laws on DNP. In 2014, the families of Chris Mapletoft, who died aged 18, and Sarah Houston, who died at 21, campaigned to have DNP classified as a dangerous drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act, which would make it illegal to sell or possess it. But in 2015, the year Ella died, it was ruled that because DNP does not have psychoactive (mind-altering) properties, this legislation did not cover it.
Survivor Abigail Davies believes the law as it stands reflects a poor understanding of the potent lure of weight-loss drugs, and of the extreme mental state of people with eating disorders and body dysmorphia. “People with eating disorders are incapable of looking after their own best interests. They should not be able to buy this stuff.”
The leader of Harrow council, Graham Henson, said he was glad that in prosecuting Rebelo, his officers had protected other potential victims. However, it had been a difficult process, and stronger legislation was needed, he said.
There are steps governments could take to deal with the problem even before tackling the law. “They could require transparency of domain names,” said the campaigner David Khalaf. “Registrars could be more vigilant about shutting sites down, and they could be prosecuted for failing to do so, which does not currently happen. Platforms could remove DNP conversations. Payment companies could police payment processing. You could cripple the problem.”
Fiona Parry said her family was struggling to learn to live without Ella. They believed Ella was going to come through her troubles, but she never got the chance. Ella’s friends at the youth services project created a huge canvas on which they wrote tributes to her. They wore butterflies to her funeral, and Leanne and two others organised a tribute night for the charity No Panic, enabling them to set up a helpline for young people in the throes of anxiety. “I’m at university now, and it is all because of Ella’s encouragement,” said Leanne. “She was just a beautiful soul.”
Beat’s one-to-one webchat service and phone helplines are open 365 days a year, for anyone concerned about eating disorders. Adults helpline 0808 801 0677, under-18s helpline 0808 801 0711, and beateatingdisorders.org.uk