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EPA Tells Amazon, EBay to Stop Shipping Unproven Covid Goods

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·5 min read
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(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration is ordering two of the largest e-commerce marketplaces in the U.S. -- Amazon.com Inc. and EBay Inc. -- to stop selling unproven or unsafe disinfectants, including products falsely marketed as killing Covid-19.

The Environmental Protection Agency late Wednesday issued orders to the two companies directing them to stop selling or distributing 70 products, including sprays, lanyards and other gear sometimes touted as “preventing epidemics.”

Under the EPA orders, the companies are obligated to take the products off their websites and certify they have done so. Failure to comply with the stop-sale notices could expose the companies to civil penalties of as much as $20,288 per sale.

The EPA action is the latest move by U.S. regulators to stem the sale of masks, cleaners and other products that are falsely billed as helping safeguard people from the lethal coronavirus.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission also have issued warning letters to companies peddling fraudulent coronavirus treatments, including silver dietary supplements touted by televangelist Jim Bakker. Federal officials also have seized shipments of bogus treatments and protective gear entering the U.S.

The EPA is targeting Amazon.com Services LLC and EBay for their role in facilitating the sales of unregistered, misbranded or restricted-use pesticides and pesticide devices -- including by distributing them. For instance, while products on Amazon.com may be offered by third-party sellers, Amazon helps fulfill and ship products, the EPA said in its order to the company.

“EBay and Amazon have certainly a legal obligation, but also sort of a corporate obligation to ensure that products like this aren’t on their site,” Doug Benevento, associate deputy administrator of the EPA, said. Targeting the e-commerce marketplaces “cuts off the sale of these products that are ineffective or potentially dangerous to people.”

Ashley Settle, an EBay representative, said early Thursday that the company was supportive of the EPA’s “efforts to prohibit the sale of items making fraudulent health claims.”

“Since the outbreak,” Settle added, “we have been employing a combination of digital and manual surveillance tools to remove products like those marketed with the term ‘coronavirus,’ which violates our policies regarding making unsubstantiated health claims.”

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement that the company requires that sellers “provide accurate information on product detail pages and put processes in place to proactively block inaccurate claims about Covid-19 before they are published to our store. We’ve also developed specific tools for Covid-19 that run 24/7 to scan the hundreds of millions of product detail pages for any inaccurate claims that our initial filters may have missed.”

Amazon’s efforts have blocked more than 6.5 million products, the spokesperson said. The company is removing the products in question and is “taking action against the bad actors who listed them.”

Even before the coronavirus, the EPA was bolstering enforcement of unregistered pesticide sales -- and Amazon has been a frequent target. With the action late Wednesday, the company has received four stop-sale orders over the past five years as well as more than a dozen advisory notices since February 2018 about potential violations. And to settle nearly 4,000 alleged violations of illegally distributing unregistered and misbranded pesticide products, two years ago Amazon agreed to pay $1.2 million, step up screening of products for sale on its site and establish a training program for pesticide sellers.

“That hasn’t proven to be effective,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assistance Susan Bodine. “They have to do a better job of corporate compliance. Clearly, the corporate compliance agreement that we entered into with Amazon back in 2018 isn’t working.”

The EPA’s stop-sale order to EBay is the first to the online auction site, marking an escalation after three years of talks, information requests and advisory letters.

Although the Trump administration also has pursued criminal charges against individual, third-party sellers that use the Amazon and EBay platforms, going after the marketplaces can be more effective at keeping unsafe products out of people’s hands, Benevento said.

Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, it is illegal to sell or distribute unregistered or misbranded “pesticides” -- a category that includes any substance intended for destroying or repelling pests, from rodents and insects to bacteria and other microorganisms. Under the law, it is also illegal to sell or distribute restricted-use pesticides to non-certified operators who may not be trained in handling the chemicals.

Pesticides that aren’t registered or sold to non-certified users can be dangerous, Bodine said.

“And if they’re misbranded and claimed to be safe for a particular purpose and they don’t work that creates a whole other suite of risks,” she added. “For example, if you’re selling something to a hospital, and you’re saying it kills bacteria and it doesn’t, then you could be creating a very acute risk.”

Paint Stripper

Product listings on Ebay.com cited by the EPA included 55-gallon drums of methylene chloride, usually used as a paint stripper, that were marketed as a coronavirus disinfectant. The EPA has banned the retail sale of that product because of the risk that users will die of asphyxiation after inhaling it. And on Amazon, sanitizers and tablets containing chlorine dioxide are being sold with unprovable claims of sanitizing and disinfecting hospitals, offices and homes, the EPA said.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler pressed the issue in an April phone call with Amazon, EBay, Walmart Inc. and two retail trade associations.

The Trump administration is also going after individual sellers. A Georgia woman last month pleaded guilty to violating the Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act by selling a lanyard-like product called Shut Out that was presented as being able to lift viruses from human bodies “just like a portable air cleaner.” She faces penalties of as long as a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Sellers are still marketing the lanyards online, Bodine said.

(Updates to add Amazon comment, beginning in 10th paragraph.)

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