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PHILADELPHIA — A retired doctor has been found guilty of selling a chemical that is used as a herbicide and wood preservative as a weight-loss drug.

On Monday, 85-year-old William Merlino was convicted of selling misbranded drugs online. The charge stemmed from a scheme where he packaged and sold Dinitrophenol (DNP) as a weight-loss drug that he manufactured in a lab in his home.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania says DNP was used as a weight-loss drug in the 1930s before the law required drugs to be proven safe before they were marketed. The chemical compound had significant negative side effects, including dehydration, cataracts, liver damage, and death. As more side effects were reported, FDA issued a statement that DNP was “extremely dangerous and not fit for human consumption.”

While DNP has never been approved for human consumption by the FDA, it has a variety of industrial and commercial uses such as herbicides, dyes, and wood preservatives. 

In the indictment against Merlino, the office said Merlino advertised DNP on Twitter, but disguised the product on eBay to avoid detection. In the government’s trial memo, it said the tweet, posted on January 3, 2018, reads “DNP for sale on eBay for weight loss. Is not legal in US so listed as fertilizer on eBay. #Diet #weightloss.”

In some cases, the indictment reads, Merlino would sell DNP for agricultural use but advertised the historical use and dosages of DNP as a weight loss aid. eBay eventually removed all listings of DNP for sale, so the indictment reads that Merlino conducted transactions through email.

“The United States sets standards for the foods and drugs we ingest in order to keep American consumers and patients safe. The defendant knowingly skirted our country’s regulations by marketing an unsafe chemical to people hoping for a quick and easy solution. This scheme put many people’s health and safety at risk. We urge everyone to refrain from ingesting DNP for any reason.”

U.S. Attorney Romero

After a year-long investigation by the FDA, the office said investigators served a search warrant at Merlino’s residence. There, they found bulk DNP, packaging and encapsulating materials, and a pill press.

A witness testified during the trial that they would refer to Merlino as “the yellow man” due to the fact that every time he would bring in a package to ship he would have yellow dust from the chemical on his skin, nails and clothes. In a statement after the trial, the inspector in charge of the United States Postal Inspection Service called Merlino no different than the snake oil salesmen from the past.

“The Postal Service has no interest in being the unwitting accomplice to anyone using the U.S. Mail to distribute contraband or other harmful substances. One of the Inspection Service’s key objectives is to rid the mail of illegal and dangerous substances that at best fleece our fellow citizens, and at worst, cause serious harm. William Merlino is no different than the snake oil salesmen from a century ago. Thanks to hard work of the Inspectors, Special Agents from the FDA and an Assistant United States Attorney’s Office, a jury saw through Merlino’s lies and held him accountable.”

Damon Wood, Inspector in Charge of the Philadelphia Division of the United States Postal Inspection Service

While awaiting trial on this charge, the office said Merlino faked a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in order to avoid trial. In an indictment in the obstruction of justice charges he faces for this, it says Merlino created fraudulent documents in the name of a legitimate medical doctor and healthcare provider pretending he was diagnosed and was being treated for cancer.

In the trial memo for the DNP case, they used this as evidence of consciousness of guilt. The document alleges that instead of facing authorities and having his day in court, Merlino fabricated records to avoid trial.

Sentencing has yet to be set for the DNP case.