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Buyer beware: The most dangerous products to order online

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A mother in Britain is mourning the loss of her 21-year-old daughter after the woman consumed diet pills she’d purchased online.

Eloise Aimee Parry accidentally overdosed on pills that contained the toxic ingredient dinitrophenol (DNP). A lethal dose is two tablets; Parry had taken eight.

The tragedy prompted police to remind people about the dangers of buying slimming pills or other medicines or supplements over the Internet.  “Substances from unregistered websites could put your health at risk, as they could be extremely harmful, out of date, or fake,” Chief Inspector Jennifer Mattinson told the Guardian.  

Diet pills are just one item to avoid buying online. Here are a few other products that you’re better off buying at a bricks-and-mortar store after consulting a qualified health professional.

Prescription drugs without a prescription

There are legitimate pharmacies out there, but also many that are not. Referred to as rogue websites, they may sell controlled substances such as narcotic pain relievers (such as OxyContin or Vicodin), sedatives (such as Valium or Xanax), stimulants (like Ritalin) and other drugs that require a prescription. By bypassing this basic route, you could be putting yourself at risk.

Health Canada urges consumers to not do business with websites that refuse to give you a street address, telephone number, and a way of contacting a pharmacist; claim to have a “miracle cure" for any serious condition; or sell products that do not have an eight-digit Drug Identification Number issued by Health Canada.

“You have no way of knowing where these companies are located, where they get their drugs, what is in their drugs, or how to reach them if there is a problem,” Health Canada states on its website. “If you order from these sites, you may get counterfeit drugs with no active ingredients, drugs with the wrong ingredients, drugs with dangerous additives, or drugs past their expiry date.”

According to the World Health Organization, medicines purchased over the Internet from sites that conceal their physical address are counterfeit in more than 50 per cent of cases.

“Any kind of product can be and has been counterfeited: expensive lifestyle and anti-cancer medicines, antibiotics, medicines for hypertension and cholesterol lowering drugs, hormones, steroids and inexpensive generic versions of simple pain killers and antihistamines,” WHO’s website says.

In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration took action against more than 9,600 websites that illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines to consumers. The federal body issued regulatory warnings and seized more than US$41,104,386 worth of illegal medicines worldwide.

“Many of these websites appeared to be operating as a part of an organized criminal network that falsely purported its websites to be ‘Canadian Pharmacies’,” the FDA said in a press release

Accutane (Isotretinoin)

Used to treat severe nodular acne, this is a vitamin A derivative that belongs to a class of medications called retinoids. If taken by pregnant women, isotretinoin products can cause severely deformed babies or result in miscarriages, according to Health Canada. The drug has also been linked to depression and suicide and can increase the risk of developing diabetes, liver disease, or heart disease in people with a family history.  

“I certainly do not recommend buying Accutane online,” says Annapolis dermatologist Lisa Kates on RealSelf, a resource dedicated to dermatology, cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and elective treatments. “I do not believe you [will] find another dermatologist who will recommend you to do this either. While this can be a great medication, it needs to be closely monitored. If not used properly or monitored, it can have very serious side effects.  In addition, when you purchase products online you really are not sure of what it is you are getting.  It is not worth chancing.”

Viagra (Sildenafil citrate)

It’s not clear how much of the often-mocked drug for erectile dysfunction available online is counterfeit, but regardless, taking fake Viagra can have serious health effects.

Some of the ingredients that have been found in confiscated counterfeit Viagra include blue printer ink, speed or amphetamine, the antibiotic Metronidazole (Flagyl), drywall, plaster, and substances used to mimic the colour and texture of the real blue pills, according to Forbes.

People with some heart conditions should not take sildenafil citrate tablets because of the potential for serious side effects.

“Given the increasing reports of deaths in which the use of Viagra may be implicated, clinicians need to exercise caution when advising their patients with heart disease about taking this medication,” notes the American Heart Association

Medical devices, including condoms and contact lenses

As defined by Health Canada, medical devices also include pacemakers, blood-pressure monitors, and blood-glucose monitors.

Certain devices, like automatic blood-pressure monitors, must have a Canadian Medical Device Licence before they can be legally sold in Canada; it’s possible that some of those sold online won’t have the required licence.

There are other potential problems buying devices online.

“You may get a product that has been recalled because of safety concerns,” according to Health Canada. “You may receive a product that has not been stored properly. Some medical devices must be refrigerated until used, while others should never be frozen or exposed to heat. When you order a device from an unreliable website, you do not know where the product has been stored or for how long.”

Contact lenses, meanwhile, should only be purchased after a proper evaluation and fitting by an eye-care practitioner.  

Breast milk

There’s a saying new moms learn early on: “breast is best”. However, not all women are able to breastfeed.  According to the British Medical Journal, as many as three quarters of new mothers subsequently look to the Internet for guidance.

Buying breast milk online is an unregulated industry, and the product can be contaminated with bacteria if not stored or shipped properly, viruses like hepatitis or HIV, prescription medications, and illegal drugs.

Meanwhile, a new study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 10 per cent of human milk for sale online contained cow’s milk, which can cause allergic reactions in infants. “Because buyers cannot verify the composition of milk they purchase, all should be aware that it might be adulterated with cow’s milk,” the study says.