Amazon allegedly sold "suicide kits" to vulnerable teens
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Amazon is a massive player in online retail. Most of the products sold on Amazon.com, however, are not sold by Amazon. Rather, they are sold by third-party retailers using Amazon's technology. In 2021, according to Amazon, its "U.S. selling partners sold more than 3.9 billion products – an average of 7,500 every minute – in Amazon’s store." These "partners" account for 60% of all sales on Amazon.com. The fees that Amazon charges to third-party retailers make up a significant, and growing, percentage of its overall revenue. The more products Amazon lists in its store — and the fewer humans it employs to review these listings — the more money it makes.
A series of lawsuits filed against Amazon allege that the online retailer facilitated the sale of "veritable suicide kits" to vulnerable teens and young adults. The lawsuits involve the sale of highly concentrated Sodium Nitrite, a lethal industrial chemical, on Amazon's marketplace. According to the plaintiffs, beginning in 2018, Amazon "received notifications from parents of children who died from various brands of Sodium Nitrite" but continued to offer it for sale.
The most recent lawsuit was filed two weeks ago, on March 30, by the families of two teens — 19-year-old Demetrios Viglis (DJ) of Virginia and 18-year-old Ava Passannanti of Arizona. Both teens purchased Sodium Nitrite from Amazon.com in 2020. The "teens never met or knew the other existed, but the two are bound in how identical their deaths were and the role that Amazon played to enable the untimely ends of their lives." They both "purchased Sodium Nitrite for $19.99 plus shipping costs."
The lawsuit alleges that "Amazon bundles Sodium Nitrite with other offerings to create suicide kits." Specifically, Amazon's recommendation engine suggested purchasing Sodium Nitrite with "Tagamet, an acid reduction medicine that online suicide forums recommend to prevent lifesaving vomiting" and the "'Amazon Edition' of Dr. Philip Nitschke's suicide instruction book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook." The book "details instructions for how to use Sodium Nitrite to die." It also "touts how cheap and speedy Sodium Nitrite purchase and delivery is for suicidal readers who purchase it on Amazon, even providing an Amazon link."
Further, Amazon users who "typed in 'sodium nitrite' saw 'sodium nitrite suicide' as the fifth suggested prompt to complete their search." A user searching for "sodium nitrate salt" was prompted with "sodium nitrate suicide" before they could complete the query.
Amazon also allegedly took steps to conceal the dangers of Sodium Nitrite. The lawsuit claims "upon learning that families were leaving one-star reviews for Sodium Nitrite relating to the deadliness of the product and its use for suicide, instead of removing the product, Amazon removed comments containing the word 'suicide.'"
Carrie Goldberg is the lead attorney representing the families of DJ, Ava, and four others who died after ordering Sodium Nitrite from Amazon. Goldberg tells Popular Information that she is aware of more than 50 people who have died from Sodium Nitrite obtained from Amazon.
The case on behalf of DJ and Ava was just filed recently, and Amazon has not yet responded. But Amazon has responded to a separate case filed by Goldberg in December on behalf of the families of 17-year-old Ethan McCarthy and 16-year-old Kristine Jónsson. Ethan and Kristine died after ordering the same brand of Sodium Nitrite from Amazon as DJ and Ava.
In a motion to dismiss the case, Amazon places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the deceased teens. The company argues that the law does "not impose liability for the sale of a nondefective product to legally competent persons who intentionally misuse that product to commit suicide." Amazon stresses that "Kristine and Ethan formulated plans to commit suicide wholly independent of Amazon."
Highly concentrated Sodium Nitrite has no legitimate consumer use. (In diluted form, Sodium Nitrite can be used to preserve meat.) But Amazon argued that the product "was not unreasonable unsafe," even though it has killed multiple people. Amazon also claims that "the sodium nitrite at issue here was not defective."
In a motion to dismiss a third lawsuit involving sales of Sodium Nitrite, Amazon defends offering customers complementary products that could use with Sodium Nitrite to commit suicide. These "widgets," Amazon says, "simply reflect browsing patterns of other users rather than recommendations by Amazon."
Amazon, represented by the powerful law firm Perkins Coie, also offers an avalanche of technical defenses, including that the claims are precluded by Washington State's product liability law.
Amazon's letter to Congress
In contrast to Amazon, "eBay and Etsy, discontinued Sodium Nitrite sales in 2019 or 2020." In November 2022, Amazon said it was limiting sales of highly-concentrated Sodium Nitrite to business customers, but it is unclear if this is a permanent policy change.
In a February 2022 letter to Congressperson Lori Trahan (D-MA), Amazon Vice President Brian Huseman defended Amazon's decision to offer Sodium Nitrite for sale to the general public. Huseman wrote that "Amazon is unaware of any legal restrictions in the United States on the sale of sodium nitrite, and we have not received any state or federal regulatory takedown requests for these products." According to Huseman, "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." Huseman claimed that Amazon evaluates "any serious injury or death, regardless of the potential cause, and take[s] appropriate action." At the time, Huseman asserted that Amazon "has not found any teen accounts associated with the purchase of industrial sodium nitrite products."
Huseman's letter ignored dozens of specific questions posed by Trahan, including how much Sodium Nitrite Amazon has sold, how many people have died purchasing Sodium Nitrite from Amazon, and Amazon's policy when it learns a product it sells was used in a customer suicide.