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A bipartisan group of lawmakers has questioned Amazon for allowing third-party vendors to use its vast marketplace to sell a preservative that’s been tied to a spate of suicides.
In a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy last week, seven members of Congress asked the e-commerce giant 15 specific questions regarding the sale of the chemical, including how many purchasers have died. The group is led by Lori Trahan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and David B. McKinley, a Republican from West Virginia.
The lawmakers labeled Amazon’s allowing listings of the chemical a “grave concern,” particularly given that some of the company’s sellers make it available for overnight delivery.
“When a person is having suicidal thoughts, limiting fast access to methods by which to die can make the difference between life and death,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by CNET. The lawmakers asked CNET not to publish the letter in full because it contains the name of the chemical.
The letter, which was reported earlier by The New York Times, underscores the latest safety issue raised about products sold by third-party sellers on Amazon. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation found several examples of dangerous products, one of which the Food and Drug Administration has warned can suffocate infants, still listed on the website. Counterfeits also cause problems for Amazon shoppers because they may have faulty features, and they prompt complaints from companies that say their trademark is being infringed. Amazon has worked with multiple companies to sue sellers of counterfeit products, many of whom are based overseas.
Amazon wasn’t the only company whose platform was used to sell the chemical linked to suicides. The Times reported that the preservative has also been sold on Etsy and eBay. Etsy confirmed it banned the sale of the chemical in November 2020. EBay didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the Times reported the company has also banned it.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson extended condolences to the families of people who’ve died by suicide.
“Regarding [the chemical], it is commonly used to preserve foods such as meats and fish, and can also be used in laboratories as a reagent,” the spokesperson said. “It is a widely available product offered by retailers, and unfortunately, like many products, it can be misused.”
Brian Huseman, the company’s vice president of public policy, responded to the lawmakers’ letter. He emphasized that the chemical is being sold legally.
“All products sold in our store must comply with applicable laws and regulations and we have a robust product safety program to protect our customers,” Huseman said in his reply, which lawmakers shared with CNET.
The chemical has been associated with suicides since 2017, the lawmakers said, adding that their concerns arise from the easy availability of the chemical on online marketplaces at the same time that other websites provide detailed instructions for abusing it.
Huseman’s response didn’t address requests for information on whether the company has removed reviews that warn the chemical can be abused for suicide or ask for the listings to be taken down. The response also didn’t address lawmakers’ inquiries about whether Amazon knows how many of its customers died after ordering the chemical or if activity on the accounts of buyers dropped after purchase of the chemical.
The Times reported that the mother of a man who ordered the chemical via Amazon has sued the company for wrongful death in the suicide of her son. CNET couldn’t confirm the lawsuit. The newspaper also found reports that shoppers who search for the preservative may see recommendations for other items people typically buy when they purchase the chemical as part of a plan to kill themselves.