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Hidden Speed: What Is BMPEA and Why Is It Dangerous?

A speed-like chemical few people had ever heard of made news this week when Harvard scientists detected it in 11 products What is it? Why is it bad?
/ Source: NBC News

A chemical few had ever heard of made news this week when Harvard scientists alerted the public that they found a speed-like ingredient in 11 dietary supplements available at national health stores, including the Vitamin Shoppe.

Their lab tests on those over-the-counter supplements detected the presence of beta-methylphenylethylamine, or BMPEA, which is chemically related to amphetamines. The New York Times first reported the findings.

On Wednesday, Vitamin Shoppe executives announced the company was pulling any pills containing BMPEA from its shelves, saying “the safety of these products is now in question.” But many consumers are still trying to understand how the chemical got into those supplements — and what it might do to their bodies if consumed.

What is BMPEA?

BMPEA is a member of the phenethylamine family of chemicals, which also includes amphetamines and hallucinogens like mescaline.

According to University of California San Diego professor of chemistry Dionicio Siegel, who studies phenethylamines, this class of substances can target a number of brain receptors controlling energy, but also have LSD-like effects.

What Does BMPEA To the Human Body?

Nobody knows for sure. BMPEA has never been tested in people for safety or efficacy.

BMPEA has been shown to raise blood pressure and heart rates in dogs and cats. It is classified as a doping agent by the World Anti-Doping Agency because it is closely related to amphetamine.

Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, a manufacturer of supplements containing BMPEA and a supplier to other supplement makers, says it has conducted a clinical trial of a supplement containing it on 10 men. According to the results, the subjects’ heart rates increased by 11 beats per minute and systolic blood pressure rose 22 points. Hi-Tech paid for that study.

One of the 11 products cited by Harvard researchers was Fastin-XR, sold by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals. On its website, the company says Fastin-XR "utilizes Thermo-Rx, a unique phenylethylamine alkaloid blend from the plant Acacia rigidula, and other potent stimulants that support extreme energy, a great mood, and optimal weight control."

Why Would Supplement Makers Include It in Products?

Because other stimulants formerly used in supplements, like ephedra, have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration.

“The (supplement) industry has been looking for other stimulants and appears to have stumbled on this family of ingredients,” Steve Mister, president and CEO of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) told NBC News.

“We urge FDA to take immediate enforcement action against these adulterated products containing BMPEA and the companies illegally spiking these products with this synthetic drug.”

How Dangerous Is It?

Nobody can say for sure because there’s been no real testing. All anybody can do is compare it with substances it replaced, like ephedra, and another drug in the same family, DMAA.

The very effects on heart rate and blood pressure Hi-Tech’s study found led to the banning of both ephedra and DMAA. Between 1995 and 1997, the FDA received over 900 reports of adverse events linked to possible ephedra toxicity including 37 classified as “serious” such as strokes, heart attacks, and deaths.

The toll mounted, most famously including the 2003 death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. An autopsy implicated ephedra as a contributing factor. DMAA had similar effects.

Why Did The Vitamin Shoppe Pull Products with BMPEA?

In a statement, the company said it removed the pills from shelves “because the safety of these products is now in question and may not be in compliance with FDA regulations. In addition, the Vitamin Shoppe continues to encourage the FDA to use its authority to remove any dietary supplements from the market which it deems unsafe.”

Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead author on the study, said the FDA should warn consumers immediately about BMPEA and take action to eliminate it from dietary supplements.

"Let's not wait until we have a body count," he said. "Just get the job done."

Acacia rigidula, Cohen added, is a shrub that is native to Texas, does not naturally contain BMPEA.

-- Reuters contributed to this report.