Incident 156: Amazon Reportedly Sold Products and Recommended Frequently Bought Together Items That Aid Suicide Attempts

Description: Despite complaints notifying Amazon about the sale of various products that had been used to aid suicide attempts, its recommendation system reportedly continued selling them and suggesting their frequently bought-together items.
Alleged: Amazon developed and deployed an AI system, which harmed people attempting suicides.

Suggested citation format

Hundt, Andrew. (2022-02-04) Incident Number 156. in McGregor, S. (ed.) Artificial Intelligence Incident Database. Responsible AI Collaborative.

Incident Stats

Incident ID
156
Report Count
2
Incident Date
2022-02-04
Editors
Sean McGregor, Khoa Lam

Tools

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Incident Reports

The pleas to Amazon were explicit. A food preservative sold by the online retailer and other e-commerce sites was being used as a poison to die by suicide.

“Please stop selling this product,” began one review, posted on Amazon in July 2019 by a person who wrote 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.”

Since then, suicides linked to sales of the preservative through Amazon have continued. The New York Times identified 10 people who had killed themselves using the chemical compound after buying it through the site in the past two years, including a 16-year-old girl in Ohio, a pair of college freshmen in Pennsylvania and Missouri, and a 27-year-old in Texas whose mother has filed a wrongful-death suit against Amazon. Enough people purchased the preservative to attempt suicide that the company’s algorithm began suggesting other products that customers frequently bought along with it to aid in such efforts.

But when family members left behind and others alerted Amazon to the deaths and to the danger of the sales, the company declined to act.

Now, members of Congress are demanding answers. In a letter sent last week to Andy Jassy, Amazon’s president and chief executive, a bipartisan group of House members sought an accounting of the company’s sales of the preservative and related suicides, details on how the retailer had addressed the dangers, and an explanation of how it had responded to complaints.

The move comes just weeks after publication of a Times investigation that linked a website, which provides explicit instructions on suicide, to a long trail of deaths. Most were from the chemical compound, sold legally in many countries. Site members advised one another on where to buy it and how to use it. Many of those who died — The Times has now identified more than 50 people — were under 25; some were minors.

In response to the article, members of Congress have sought briefings from Google and other tech companies that help make the suicide site accessible, and have asked Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to consider ways to prosecute its operators.

In their letter to Amazon, seven House lawmakers pressed the company, saying that the ease and swiftness with which vulnerable people could buy the compound, called sodium nitrite, was a “grave concern.”

The lawmakers are targeting 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, and because of claims by parents and others that product reviews on Amazon warning about the danger were removed, said Representative Lori Trahan, Democrat of Massachusetts and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a written response to the lawmakers on Thursday, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president for public policy, extended condolences to families of the dead while defending Amazon’s practices and sales of the compound. He said it was used for a range of purposes and was available from 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,” he wrote. “Like many widely-available consumer products,” he added, the compound “can unfortunately be misused.”

The lawmakers found the company’s answers 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,” Representative Trahan said. “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 10 deaths that The Times identified.

Other sites said they had restricted sales of the compound.

Last year, an eBay director wrote to a coroner in England that the company had prohibited global sales of the compound in 2019 after receiving a report of its potential use in suicides. However, The Times identified eight suicides involving eBay sales of the poison since then, 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 the company would support government restrictions on online sales of the chemical to prevent future suicides.

In November 2020, Etsy banned sales of the compound, said a spokesperson, who declined to explain why. 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 in Mississippi wrote on the suicide site that he had bought the compound on the site. Days later, he was dead.

The United States is among many countries that allow the chemical compound to be sold as a food preservative, and the federal Food and Drug Administration regulates its use for that purpose.

There is no systematic tracking of suicides involving the compound, but The Times identified dozens of people who had used it since 2018 in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Australia. More than 300 members of the suicide website had announced intentions to use the compound to kill themselves.

A study of 47 cases of poisoning by the preservative reported to the National Poison Data System over a five-year period found that suicide attempts with it had been increasing since 2017. A 2020 article in The Journal of Emergency Medicine warned that because the compound “is readily accessible through online vendors, and is being circulated through various suicide forums,” emergency rooms might see more patients who have used it.

Dr. Kyle Pires, a resident emergency room physician at Yale University Hospital who treated a 28-year-old woman who had bought the compound on Amazon, wrote in the journal Clinical Toxicology about her death and the recent rise in suicides by this method. The article, published last May, said policymakers should be aware of the preservative’s use in suicides, and encouraged emergency rooms to stock doses of an antidote, methylene blue, that can prevent death if administered early.

In an interview, Dr. Pires said that businesses should be able to buy the preservative, but sales to individuals should be banned.

“There’s an argument that it’s a slippery slope to restrict sales of something that is legal just because some people are using it to kill themselves,” Dr. Pires said. But, he added, “this is a cost-benefit analysis of a small number of hobbyists using this chemical to cure meat at home versus these growing numbers of young people, including teenagers, using it to kill themselves. For me, it’s an easy calculation.”

In the United Kingdom, coroners for nearly two years have been highlighting suicides involving online purchases of the preservative and asking the government to take action. A cross-government group is working with businesses — including manufacturers and online suppliers of the preservative — to reduce access and end some sales to individuals, according to a spokeswoman for the government’s Department of Health and Social Care. The United Kingdom already requires sellers to inform law enforcement officials of any suspicious purchases of the compound, though it’s unclear how often such reports are made.

Some businesses have gone further.

Metalchem, a British vendor, stopped selling the compound to the public in April 2020 after learning that it had been used for suicide. Mike Keay, the company’s chief executive, also notified an English coroner that he had asked other businesses to stop selling the compound online “when the reason for the purchase cannot be reasonably ascertained.”

“Sadly, nearly two years later and the preservative is still available online, even on Amazon, with worldwide shipping,” Mr. Keay wrote in an email to The Times this week.

In the United States, Amazon continued to receive complaints about its sales of the compound — including, in May 2020, from someone whose father had just used it to die; in October 2020, from the grieving mother of an 18-year-old who had killed himself; and last year from Ruth Scott of Schertz, Texas, who is now suing the company.

Her 27-year-old son, Mikael, who had struggled with depression, learned about the compound on the suicide website and bought it on Amazon. He killed himself in December 2020.

Ms. Scott said she had reached out five times to inform Amazon, only to hit brick walls. A customer service representative wrote to her that her message would be passed along.

“I am sorry for your loss,” said the email, which was reviewed by The Times. “But at least your son is now on our God’s hand.”

After Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer for Ms. Scott, wrote to Amazon’s general counsel and implored the company to remove the product from its platform, lawyers for Amazon pointed out a Texas law and court decisions protecting the seller of a legal product used in a suicide.

“They know it’s killing people,” Ms. Scott said in an interview. “They are fully aware. They just don’t care.”

Amazon's algorithm suggests products for suicide attempts

Preliminary Statement

This is an action against Amazon.com, Inc. (“Amazon”) and Loudwolf, Inc. (“Loudwolf”) (collectively “Defendants"), which profit by selling a deadly chemical they know is used by children to die by suicide.

Amazon is guided by the principle that it can sell anything to anybody anywhere anytime and for any reason, even when it knows it’s selling something that likely will be used to kill a child within a week from their purchase.

In our country, it is illegal to aid or assist in somebody else’s suicide.

The rare exception exists in eleven states where physicians are allowed, under exceedingly narrow, legislated medical circumstances, to carefully facilitate the death of a proven terminally ill patient. Contrary to what Amazon and Loudwolf may think, there is no exception that allows for corporate-assisted suicide.

This is a case about the most powerful, wealthy, and trusted corporation in America knowingly assisting in the deaths of healthy children by selling them suicide kits.

These kits are comprised of Sodium Nitrite—a soluble solution that when mixed with water and drunk can render a person unconscious within twenty minutes. Along with Sodium Nitrite, Amazon recommends that customers also purchase a small scale to measure the right dose, Tagamet to prevent vomiting up the liquid, and the “Amazon edition” of the Peaceful Pill Handbook which contains a chapter with instructions on how to administer these ingredients together to die.

Even after parents and regulators warned Amazon that Sodium Nitrite had no household use, Amazon continued to sell it to households, for under twenty dollars, and with two-day delivery Presently Amazon stocks three brands of 98-99% pure Sodium Nitrite.

Loudwolf is one brand of Sodium Nitrite Amazon stocked.

Amazon sold Loudwolf Sodium Nitrite to children.

Amazon has no method of age verification to set up an account and even if it did, does not hesitate to sell Sodium Nitrite to households or to children.

Amazon knows it sells Sodium Nitrite to households that have no history of purchasing potent industrial chemicals.

Amazon and Loudwolf know there are zero household uses for Sodium Nitrite.

Amazon knows that during the coronavirus pandemic there was a huge spike in teenage suicide and mental health crises, and that Sodium Nitrite became a popular, cheap, and convenient method for teens to kill themselves.

During the pandemic, Amazon’s profits soared 220% in the first year alone, capitalizing on Americans quarantining at home and positioning itself as the trusted stalwart that could be counted on deliver necessities—at times being the only reliable provider of masks, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer when everybody was scared to leave home.

Shoppers on Amazon can just as easily click to purchase Sodium Nitrite as they can batteries, pistachio nuts, or a toilet paper.

After being informed of the high incidence of Sodium Nitrite being sold to children and delivered to their homes, Amazon consciously, and with the advice of legal counsel, recommitted to continue to sell Sodium Nitrite and deliver it to the homes of children.

Plaintiffs are the families of two teenagers, unknown to one another, who during the Coronavirus pandemic separately purchased Loudwolf Sodium Nitrite from Amazon and then died excruciating deaths just over three months apart.

On September 24, 2020, 16-year-old Kristine Jónsson from Hilliard, Ohio purchased Loudwolf Sodium Nitrite from Amazon.com. It arrived two days later.

The police found her dead in her mother’s car at 8:12 am on September 30, 2020.

On January 1, 2021, 17-year-old Ethan McCarthy from Milton, West Virginia purchased Loudwolf Sodium Nitrite from Amazon.com.

On January 7, 2021, Ethan’s mother discovered him dead in his bed and he was pronounced dead at 10:56am.

Both Kristine and Ethan had purchased the Sodium Nitrite for $19.99. Amazon made a total of $2.39 from each sale.

The circumstances surrounding Amazon’s sales to both Kristine and Ethan were highly irregular. Amazon has a policy that people under the age of 18 can only use the service with the involvement of a parent or guardian. However, Kristine, at just sixteen, had created her own account to purchase the poisonous chemical and was never asked her age when she set up the account. The package delivered to Kristine’s home was addressed without a last name. It read only “Kristine.”

Seventeen-year-old Ethan used the account that belonged to his mother, Nikki, to purchase Sodium Nitrite. When Nikki received the email receipt for the purchase, she immediately called Amazon’s customer service to tell them there must have been some mistake and that nobody at her home had ordered the item. Amazon told Nikki the order was cancelled. Instead, the Sodium Nitrite was delivered to her home four days later.

Amazon consciously sold Kristine and Ethan Sodium Nitrite with the knowledge and understanding it would be used to end their lives.

In loving memory of Kristine and Ethan, their families now seek to hold Amazon and Loudwolf responsible under theories of product liability and negligence for the untimely, painful, and preventable deaths they caused.

Complaint For Civil Penalties and Demand for a Jury Trial