Diet pill death from DNP: Could it happen here?

The story of Eloise Aimee Parry -- the young woman in the U.K. who died after taking toxic diet pills she bought online -- will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale for consumers to stay far away from any quick-fix weight-loss product available on the Internet. But the tragic case of this 21-year-old college student is also a stark reminder of how little control health officials in the U.S. and abroad have when it comes to regulating pharmaceuticals on the Internet.

Police say Parry died on Sunday, April 12, just hours after taking the tablets that are believed to have contained a "highly toxic and very dangerous" substance called dinitrophenol, or DNP.

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Eloise Aimee Parry
West Mercia Police

"She was literally burning up from within," Eloise's mother, Fiona Parry, said in a statement posted online. Researchers say DNP, which has been linked to at least 62 deaths over several decades, makes metabolism skyrocket to the point where patients suffer hyperthermia, rapid breathing and heartbeat, cardiovascular collapse and death.

Dr. David Gortler, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration medical officer, told CBS News it is possible that a similar incident could occur in the U.S., because the FDA does not have the authority to regulate dietary supplements from other countries that come through the mail. Typically, only when something goes wrong can the FDA take action.

Gortler -- who worked at the agency's division of metabolism and endocrinology that reviews drugs for weight loss, and is currently a drug safety expert with www.formerFDA.com -- said DNP is an organic chemical that has been used as an antiseptic and in photo development. He added that the chemical compound most likely is available in the U.S. market, but as a cleaning product -- not an approved drug.

"Windex isn't banned by the FDA either, but because it's not approved for any kind of clinical use by the FDA, any company putting it in their dietary supplements would be liable for injury or death," he told CBS News.

Records from the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation indicate that similar incidents have occurred involving online sales of DNP in the U.S. In 2002, the agency opened an investigation involving the sales of DNP after the father of the deceased young woman wrote a letter to the U.S. Postal Service saying she'd bought the product through the mail.

Through investigating this case, health officials linked two independent ongoing investigations regarding suspicious mailings of DNP. Two men were arrested and convicted for running a business that sold these dangerous fake diet aids.

Another investigation conducted by the FDA's Detroit district office and the postal service led to the arrest of a man in Strongville, Ohio. In that case, a woman was hospitalized when she began to experience tachycardia [rapid heartbeat], flushing and profuse sweating after taking the pills.

"DNP is a dangerous chemical and has a long history of significant safety issues, which is why it is not an approved drug," Gortler said. "The FDA recommends not taking this drug in any amount. I'm sure the company sending this supplement was only too happy to take Ms. Parry's money without warning her of the significant safety issues with this supplement. Basically everyone selling dietary supplements for the purpose of weight loss is a liar and charlatan, preying upon individuals who don't understand the pharmacology of obesity."

In the U.S., even weight loss and dietary supplements that do end up on the shelves at retails stores are not regulated by the FDA. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), supplements with established ingredients -- those that were sold in the U.S. before 1994 -- may be marketed without any evidence proving they are effective or safe. For new supplement ingredients, DSHEA requires manufacturers to give the FDA evidence that the new ingredient is safe.

The FDA is only required to step in when consumers report that one of these products is unsafe. Because of this, many say the FDA's regulations are too lax. Health officials have recently begun investigating a number of unregulated over-the-counter products, including homeopathic remedies and an amphetamine-type diet supplement called BMPEA. And n February, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman launched his own crackdown on dietary supplements that he said didn't contain the active ingredients they claimed. While the FDA does not conduct its own testing on such products, it does require them to be properly labeled.

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    Jessica Firger covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com