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EPA tells Amazon, EBay to stop shipping unproven COVID goods

Andrew Wheeler is the administrator of the EPA.
Andrew Wheeler is the administrator of the EPA.Al Drago/Associated Press/POOL Bloomberg via AP

The Trump administration is ordering two of the largest e-commerce marketplaces in the United States — Amazon and eBay — 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.

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

The US 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 United States.

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.”

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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.”

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.

Product listings on eBay 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.

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