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Holly Firfer: Banned dietary supplement still causing deaths

January 11, 2001
12 p.m. EST
Photo of Holly Firfer
Holly Firfer  

Holly Firfer is a correspondent for CNN's Health Unit.

CNN Moderator: What is 1,4 Butanediol and in what kinds of products is it found?

Holly Firfer: 1,4-butanediol, or BD, is a substance that once ingested is immediately converted in the human system to GHB, or what's also known as the "date rape" drug. It was sold in a variety of dietary and nutritional supplements over the counter to aid in a variety of things such as bodybuilding, sleep, to improve libido or sexual performance, among others. It is also sold industrially as a solvent for use in manufacturing. Those were the basic purposes of this substance.

Question from chat room: Is it dangerous or lethal?

Holly Firfer: It can be lethal. A recent study out of the New England Journal of Medicine documented overdoses and deaths associated with the substance. Doctors say it can induce vomiting, incontinence, dizziness, seizures, even coma. It can make you very agitated and combative as well. And, as the researchers point out, it can kill you.

CNN Moderator: Are there any government regulations surrounding this substance?


Holly Firfer: Yes, there are. Right now, according to the Food and Drug Administration, it cannot be used in dietary or nutritional supplements in the United States. But, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 1-4,butanediol is not illegal if sold for industrial purposes. GHB, or the "date rape drug", is illegal, as is another similar substance known as GBL. But because the body converts 1,4-butanediol the DEA cannot regulate what happens in the body. The DEA did tell us that if someone were found selling the substance to be taken as a drug, under an analog provision, they could prosecute.

CNN Moderator: Is 1,4-butanediol problematic because of abuses of it?

Holly Firfer: Some people, especially those who made these supplements, would say the abuse of the substance is what is causing the problems. They say that for years they sold these supplements for people who used them for health purposes, not recreationally, and they had no problems. However, the researchers say using this substance just once has caused problems, and even killed people.

Question from chat room: If it is lethal, how come it isnít illegal?

Holly Firfer: Because its purpose is for manufacturing. It is legal for that reason. 1,4-butanediol is added to other chemicals to make polymers, polyurethane, and other personal care products, like adhesives. The DEA official we spoke with says he is unaware of any instances where this product is being sold straight for use as a drug. Therefore, up to this point there has been no need to prosecute. But he added that if they should find any evidence of this substance being sold for use as a recreational drug, then they can take action.

CNN Moderator: Are there any other names for it? What should consumers be aware of concerning 1,4-butanediol?

Holly Firfer: Yes. It has been sold as Sucol B, and other names in products. A good rule of thumb from doctors we spoke with is to read the labels for ingredients, and if you can't identify something, ask a health professional before you take it.

CNN Moderator: What should people do if they suspect a 1,4-butanediol reaction?

Holly Firfer: One concern of many doctors is some of the labeling on the products, which states if somebody has adverse reactions, the only treatment necessary is to "sleep it off". The labeling also discourages seeking medical help by emergency professionals. Doctors say this can be extremely dangerous advice, and if somebody is having a bad reaction to call for medical help immediately and be sure to alert them of the substance they took and the fact that it contains 1,4-butanediol. Thatís critical because it can usually not be detected in toxicology reports, and doctors need to know this in order to treat the person properly.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today?

Holly Firfer: Because this substance has no taste, no smell, no color, and it does not show up in toxicology reports, doctors are trying to get the message out about this substance so that if someone should have a medical emergency related to it, they can be treated properly. The researchers say that we need to be extremely cautious with these types of drugs, meaning all of the substances related to GHB. And if people are looking for dietary and nutritional supplements to help them, whether it be aiding in sleep or sexual performance or any other thing that they might be taking these substances to help with, to talk to their doctor or health care professional before experimenting on their own. We want everyone to be safe.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Holly Firfer.

Holly Firfer: Thank you for your interest. Be safe.

Holly Firfer joined the chat room via telephone from CNN Global Headquarters in Atlanta, GA and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Thursday, January 11, 2001.

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Banned dietary supplement still causing deaths, study says
January 11, 2001

Holly Firfer's Biography - Health
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
New England Journal of Medicine
GenaPharm Inc.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Hennepin County Medical Center
International Chemical Safety Cards: 1, 4-butanediol

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