Amazon is facing a lawsuit accusing the online retailer of selling lethal doses of sodium nitrite, a food preservative that is fatal at high levels of purity, to customers in so-called “suicide kits.”
The parents of 16-year-old Kristine Jónsson, of Ohio, and the parents of 17-year-old Ethan McCarthy, of West Virginia, accused Amazon of assisting in the deaths of their children by selling and delivering them a lethal dose of sodium nitrite. The lawsuit also claims Amazon’s Web site also recommended customers who purchased the chemical also buy a scale, an anti-vomiting drug and suggested a handbook on assisted suicide.
The law firm filing the lawsuit, C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based firm, has also filed a similar complaint in Washington that also alleges Amazon advertised branded products with the active ingredient methylene blue, which is used in emergency departments to reverse sodium nitrate poisoning (methemoglobinemia) if injected intravenously. The suit contends that advertisements for branded methylene blue were being sold on several sodium nitrate product listings, which is no longer for sale on Amazon.
The Washington complaint was also filed this year and says two more people; 27-year-old Mikael Scott and 17-year-old Tyler Muhleman, purchased the so-called “suicide kits” from Amazon and used them to end their lives.
“Amazon is selling a product that is as deadly as cyanide,” the firm said in a statement to the New York Times. “This is different from them selling rope, knives, or other implements that can be used for death because there is no household use for [sodium nitrite] at the level of purity (98-99%) it sells it.”
The New York Times also reported Amazon has been aware of the issue since as early as February, when a bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to the company asking about the retailer’s sales of sodium nitrite and related suicides, as well as specific details on what the company has done about the dangers of the substance as well as the company’s response to the numerous complaints about the company making the chemical available. The newspaper also reported in its story that it had identified ten people who had used the chemical, which they purchased on Amazon, to kill themselves over the past two years.
Sodium nitrite is typically used to cure meats such as ham, bacon and hot dogs and can be purchased on myriad Web sites in lethal amounts as well, not just Amazon.
Data from poison control centers in the U.S. and Australia have recently reported steep increases in the use of sodium nitrate in suicide attempts due to its vast availability online and widespread acknowledgement in online forums as an effective form of suicide.
“Across the U.S. poison centers are receiving frightening numbers of reports on self-poisoning with nitrites,” the Missouri Poison Center’s Web site said in a public health warning. “It’s easy to find online nitrite vendors with recommendations that can easily reach online communities. Local poison centers have records that explicitly state that patients researched this method of suicide in an online blog or forum. The records also show that half of these patients obtained sodium nitrite online.”
In a statement, Amazon said it wishes to extend its “deepest condolences” to the families and loved ones of people affected by suicide and added it made customer safety a top priority and that no law has been broken.
“Sodium nitrite is a legal and widely-available product offered by retailers to preserve foods, such as meats and fish, and for use in laboratories as a reagent. Sodium nitrite is not intended for consumption, and unfortunately, like many products, it can be misused,” the spokesperson said in a statement.