Scientists at Anglia Ruskin University have revealed for the first time the serious long-term health risks associated with Benzylpiperazine (BZP), dubbed the Ònew ecstasyÓ.
BZP was a popular legal high before it was reclassified as a controlled substance in December 2009.
According to Dean Ames, the Forensic Science ServiceÕs drugs intelligence adviser, the designer drug has replaced MDMA as the main ingredient in ecstasy tablets.
ÒItÕs a rare drug now, MDMA,Ó said Ames. ÒThere are hundreds of thousands of tablets in circulation in the UK that look like ecstasy tablets, but which actually contain piperazines (a class of compounds that includes BZP).
ÒThe tablets are still being sold as ecstasy and because they have an effect, young people may think they are taking ecstasy.Ó
Anglia RuskinÕs research, led by Professor Mike Cole and Dr Beverley Vaughan, is the first of its kind to examine the health implications of taking piperazines and will help to educate medical staff as to the most serious symptoms associated with their ingestion, namely liver and kidney damage.
ÒThe market for and abuse of clandestinely synthesised designer drugs has increased significantly over the last decade and this has been accompanied by an increase in the number of reports of death and serious illnesses related to the ingestion of these substances,Ó said Professor Cole, whose preliminary findings were presented at the American Academy of Forensic SciencesÕ annual conference.
ÒBefore our research there had been no systematic study of the toxicity of these drugs and this is needed if we are to treat drug users effectively and inform people of the potential hazards associated with taking them.Ó
The data produced by Professor Cole and Dr Vaughan provides clear evidence of the cellular cytotoxicity of BZP and its synthetic by-products at levels likely to occur following their ingestion. It also indicates that in general the liver, the site of detoxification for the body, is most sensitive to the actions of these drugs.
ÒCells derived from the liver and kidney were exposed to BZP Ð its starting materials and its impurities Ð at concentrations which reflected a dose for a user of these drugs. The cells were examined to determine whether significant changes had occurred, including apoptosis (cell suicide) and necrosis (cell murder),Ó explained Professor Cole.
ÒIt was found that BZP itself is toxic to the kidney whilst the starting material, piperazine hexahydrate, showed toxicity in only the liver. In general the study showed that water soluble drugs, impurities and mixtures were toxic to liver cells, whilst compounds and mixtures which are fat soluble are toxic to the kidney.
ÒMixtures of drugs and impurities, synthesised to reflect street samples, produced a variety of toxic effects depending upon the composition of the mixture Ð but all were significantly toxic.
ÒThe work is important because it begins to provide an explanation of why people who have taken these drugs exhibit the symptoms that they do in A&E rooms.
ÒIt also shows that different batches of drugs will have different effects because of the different proportions of drug and impurity in the material, and that users are exposed to toxic mixtures of drugs for which both the short and longer-term effects will not be known and cannot easily be predicted.Ó
Addictions expert Sarah Graham, who is a spokesperson for the Government drugs helpline FRANK, said: ÒBZP is not safe Ð it is an entirely synthetic party drug which mimics the effects of ecstasy and speed. It is a stimulant which can raise your blood pressure and may lead to a fit or heart attack.
ÒYou never know what you are getting because the chemical make up continually changes and mixing the drug with alcohol can increase the risks.Ó
About Benzylpiperazine (BZP)
BZP comes as a tablet, a capsule, or an off-white powder. It is a stimulant so the effects are like amphetamine. BZP is a derivative of piperazine, which is used as an anti-worming agent for farm animals. Effects include decreased appetite, difficulty in sleeping, nausea, vomiting, anxiety, agitation, collapse, fits or seizures. BZP and related piperazines are now controlled as Class C drugs. You can get up to two years in prison, and/or an unlimited fine, for possession, and up to 14 years in prison, and/or an unlimited fine, for supply.
FRANK is the governmentÕs drugs helpline.
Anglia Ruskin University
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