Amazon and other e-commerce sites sold a food preservative that was being used as a poison for suicide. Some of those companies ceased selling the materials, some did not.
“Please stop selling this product”
The New York Times reported last month that one Amazon review posted in July 2019 began: “Please stop selling this product.” The reviewer said that a niece had used it to kill herself: “I’ve already notified Amazon and they said they would help with this, but they have not.”
Suicides linked to sales of the preservative through Amazon have continued since then. The Times story reported that it identified ten (10) people who had killed themselves using the chemical compound after buying it through Amazon in the past two years. The dead include a 16-year-old Ohio girl, two college freshmen (in Pennsylvania and Missouri), and a 27-year-old Texas girl whose mother has filed a wrongful-death suit against Amazon.
So many people purchased the preservative to attempt suicide that Amazon’s algorithm began to suggest other products that customers frequently bought with it to assist in such efforts.
Amazon did not act to stop sales
Despite the casualties, when surviving family members and others alerted Amazon to the deaths and the danger of the sales, Amazon did not remove the products.
Members of Congress are now demanding answers. Last week, a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to Amazon’s president and chief executive, Andy Jassy. The House members seek an accounting of Amazon’s sales of the preservative and related suicides. They also seek details about how the company addressed the dangers, and how it had responded to complaints.
The House action comes shortly after a NY Times story linked a website that provides explicit suicide instructions to a long trail of deaths. Most were from the chemical compound which is sold legally in many countries. Site members advised one another on where to buy it and how to use it. The Times has now identified many of those who died.
In response to the Times story, members of Congress have sought briefings from Google and other tech companies that help make the suicide site accessible. They have requested that Attorney General Merrick Garland consider ways to prosecute the site’s operators.
In their letter to Amazon, seven House lawmakers said it was of “grave concern” how easily and quickly vulnerable people could buy the compound, called sodium nitrite.
The House members have targeted Amazon for questioning because they believe it to be the e-commerce site most often used to buy the compound and get it quickly delivered. One lawmaker said they also chose Amazon because of claims by parents and others that Amazon removed product reviews that warned of the dangers.
Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, said in a written response to lawmakers that he extended condolences to families of the dead, while he defended Amazon’s practices and sales of the compound. Mr. Huseman said it was used for many purposes and was sold by other retailers.
“Amazon makes a wide selection of products available to our customers because we trust that they will use those products as intended by the manufacturers,” wrote Mr. Huseman. “Like many widely-available consumer products, the compound can unfortunately be misused.”
The lawmakers found Amazon’s response insufficient.
“Amazon had the opportunity with their response to collaborate with us on this issue that’s tragically ending the lives of people across our nation,” said US Congresswoman Lori Trahan. “Instead, they failed to answer many of our most critical questions.”
In email exchanges with The Times, an Amazon spokeswoman declined to comment on the ten (10) deaths The Times identified.
Other sites said they had restricted sales of the compound.
Ebay response also raises questions
Last year, an eBay director wrote to a coroner in England that the company had prohibited global sales of the compound in 2019 after it had received a report of its potential use in suicides. Since that time, however, The Times identified eight subsequent suicides involving eBay sales of the poison, including a death the coroner was reviewing.
Ebay did not respond to detailed emails and messages seeking comment. But in the letter to the coroner, the eBay director acknowledged that despite the ban, it was possible for “unscrupulous or unaware sellers to circumvent our policies and filters.” He wrote that ebay would support government restrictions on online sales of the chemical to prevent future suicides.
In November 2020, Etsy banned sales of the compound, according to a spokesperson. An Etsy customer posted in May 2018 that he was planning to use his purchase to kill himself. In August 2020, a 35-year-old Mississippian wrote on the suicide site that he had bought the compound on the site. Days later, he was dead.
Compound used to cure meat or commit suicide
The US allows the chemical compound to be sold as a food preservative. Some people use the poison to cure meat at home. The FDA regulates its use for that purpose.
There is no systematic tracking of suicides linked to the compound, but The Times identified dozens of people who had used it since 2018 in the US, UK, Italy, Canada, and Australia. More than 300 members of the suicide site had announced intentions to use the compound to kill themselves.
In the US, Amazon continued to receive complaints about its sales of the compound. The complaints included an October 2020 email from the grieving mother of an 18-year-old who had killed himself, and a 2021 complaint from Ruth Scott of Schertz, Texas, who is now suing Amazon over the suicide death of her son.
Law on Amazon’s Side?
A lawyer for Ms. Scott wrote to Amazon’s general counsel and asked the company to remove the product from its platform. Her answer came from Amazon lawyers who pointed out a Texas law and court decisions which protected the seller of a legal product used in a suicide.