An inquest has ruled that the death of a 23 year old student was found to be caused by slimming pills which had been bought online. Sarah Houston, who was studying Medical sciences at the University of Leeds, was found dead in her bedroom in September last year. Miss Houston had battled with weight issues since being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and bulimia when she was 15 years old. Her death has brought the issue of buying slimming tablets over the internet into the public eye; raising a debate as to the safety of a number of these drugs.
It is believed that Miss Houston obtained slimming pills online and was taking them in secret. However, the pills contained banned substance Dinitrophenol (commonly known as DNP). A government regulator stated that Miss Houston’s tragic death “has highlighted the potential dangers of buying slimming pills online”. DNP was used as an effective weight loss tool until around the 1930s, when it was banned for human consumption due to the dangers to health that it poses. It continues to be legal if used for fertilising purposes and is easily purchased, in capsule form, from the internet.
Miss Houston was also taking her prescription antidepressants, fluoxetine, alongside the slimming pills. The Inquest heard that the DNP may have reacted with the fluoxetine, but it is not known whether this contributed to her death. Coroner, Mr David Hinchliff, made it clear that the blame remained with the consumption of DNP.
A verdict of death by misadventure was recorded by Mr Hinchliff at Wakefield Coroner’s Court. Alongside this, directions were made by the Coroner to relevant government departments to tighten controls on importation of DNP considering the nature of how Miss Houston obtained the pills. Mr Hinchliff expressed that; “The only motive for manufacturing a toxic substance as a slimming aid would be to profit from people who have the misfortune of having a condition such as Sarah’s…Anyone who professionally manufactures capsules to be taken as a drug have the intention of people using it as a drug. Sarah’s death is a consequence of that’.
David Cameron spoke about this issue during Prime Minister’s questions in the House of Commons following the inquest; commenting that the government had to ‘look carefully’ at what could be done to warn people about the potential dangers of unlicensed slimming drugs.
Miss Houston’s family, who are all doctors, want DNP to be made illegal, and have stated that they will continue to campaign to prevent others being damaged by DNP.
In the meantime, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have urged people who choose to buy slimming medication online to consult with a pharmacist or doctor before taking it. A spokesman for MHRA stated; “It simply is not worth the danger to overall health to buy and use these products as you just don’t know what is in them. Any weight loss results they offer could come with a huge risk’.
By Kelly Darlington, UK Inquest Solicitor