The MBTA was so desperate to find hand sanitizer amid a national shortage last spring that it ordered an “alternative” product from a Maryland company, which has now agreed to a $550,000 settlement over claims that it misled the transit agency about the product, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office announced Tuesday.
In March, the MBTA struggled to find hand sanitizer as the pandemic took hold and organizations around the world sought cleaning and hygiene products. Federal Resources Supply Co. pitched the transit authority a product called Theraworx Protect, a foamlike substance that was supposed to form a sort of barrier against infections but does not include alcohol, the main ingredient in effective hand sanitizers.
On its website, Theraworx is described as an alternative to “soap and water” and other “hygiene products.” The site says it is largely intended to prevent infections in medical settings but can work as “an enhancement to hand hygiene protocols.”
Around the start of the pandemic, however, Federal Resources said in a marketing e-mail sent to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority that the product was well-suited to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the settlement, filed in Suffolk Superior Court.
The MBTA asked Federal Resources whether Theraworx worked as a sanitizer. The company asked its supplier, which responded: “Yes it does,” offering the extraordinary claim that it would also provide the user six hours of protection, according to the settlement. “Meaning 6 hours if you touch something it will fight it off,” Federal Resources told the MBTA in an e-mail.
The MBTA then ordered more than $1.6 million worth of Theraworx.
The court filing noted that Theraworx does not contain alcohol, while the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention has said that an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is the best substitute for soap and water. Federal Resources claimed Theraworx was an effective substitute “without adequate evidence or well-controlled and reliable studies,” Healey’s office alleged.
The MBTA said Theraworx was used by workers, but passengers never had access to it. Once the attorney general’s investigation began, the Theraworx dispensers at MBTA worksites were accompanied by signs that said it was “not a replacement for hand sanitizer or hand washing.”
In a statement, the MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, thanked Healey, saying her office “held this company accountable and recovered the T’s costs.”
“The safety of our employees is a top priority, and it’s shameful that, during a pandemic, a vendor would make false claims about a product’s effectiveness,” Poftak added.
Federal Resources did not respond to a request for comment.
The MBTA never paid for the Theraworx. Under the agreement, Federal Resources will credit the MBTA more than $150,000, essentially forgiving the agency for the product it did use. Federal Resources will also pay $400,000 to the state’s general fund, has agreed to pick up the rest of the unused product from the MBTA, and will no longer “market or sell this product to any Massachusetts agency,” Healey’s office said.
The MBTA eventually installed hand sanitizer dispensers at many stations across the system, though not until the summer.