This article discusses a teenager who died by suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline available 24/7. To reach the 24/7 Crisis Text Helpline, text 4HOPE to 741741.
COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — A family from Milton, West Virginia, and another from Hilliard, Ohio is accusing Amazon of selling a product that led to the death of two teenagers through a substance allegedly bought on the website.
In a products liability and negligence suit filed Sept. 29 in California, the parents of the teen joined other families from around the country in claiming that Amazon assisted in their child’s “untimely, painful, and preventable” death by selling her an industrial-grade chemical that cost less than $20.
NBC4 is choosing not to identify the substance on the advice of a suicide-prevention expert. It also is not identifying the Hilliard family, which declined to be interviewed for this story.
“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,” attorneys with the Brooklyn-based law firm C. A. Goldberg wrote in their complaint.
At the heart of the lawsuit is Amazon’s sale of the substance, commonly used in minuscule amounts as a coloring agent or food preservative and manufactured by Loudwolf, a California-based industrial equipment supplier.
While Loudwolf advertises the chemical has “many technical and household purposes,” attorneys said its purity level as sold on Amazon reaches 99.6%, a concentration so strong it cannot be considered a household item. Just “a trace amount” of the substance, which can be shipped to customers in less than two days, “could make a person extremely ill,” attorneys wrote.
Once shoppers add the substance to their cart, Amazon suggests a number of other related products that customers bought along with it, including an instruction manual — ultimately amounting to a “suicide kit,” attorneys argued.
“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,” the complaint reads.
In an email, a spokesperson for Amazon extended the company’s condolences to those affected by suicide. Selling partners are required to follow all applicable laws when listing products on Amazon’s site.
The spokesperson contended that the chemical ordered by the Hilliard teen “is a legal and widely-available product offered by retailers” for myriad uses.
“(The substance) is not intended for consumption, and unfortunately, like many products, it can be misused,” the Amazon spokesperson said.
As the coronavirus pandemic bore on in 2020, the Hilliard teen became overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, according to the complaint. She created an account on a pro-suicide website and died weeks later, after making her own Amazon account, buying the substance, and ingesting it.
“For all the great things that the internet does around spreading awareness, being able to share messages, obviously websites and social media, I think we also have to be very aware of the issues that come with the internet,” said Tony Coder, executive director of the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation.
Attorneys also took issue with an Amazon policy that bars customers under the age of 18 from making purchases without parental involvement. They say Amazon never inquired about the teen’s age when she created her account. The package was delivered to her home, the complaint alleged, addressed only to her first name.
“Amazon has no method of age verification to set up an account, and even if it did, does not hesitate to sell [the substance] to households or to children,” attorneys wrote.
The use of pro-suicide websites and online retailers like Amazon to help facilitate a death demonstrates the need for stronger parental controls and content restrictions online, Coder said.
Facilitating conversations with kids about mental health in a digital age is not easy, Coder said, but it can be a life-saving way to identify and address suicidal ideation. Other signs like tanking grades, withdrawal from family or friends and irregular eating or sleeping habits may indicate thoughts of suicide.
“Even in the gut, you know, I’ll talk about my own son,” Coder said. “There were a lot of things in the gut that I knew something was wrong. Following that gut instinct, you know, we all as parents have that gut instinct, being able to have that conversation I think is really, really valuable.”
While social media can help youth connect with one another, Coder encouraged teens experiencing suicidal thoughts to reach out for help from a loved one, close friend or trusted adult as opposed to surfing the deep web.
“Grief is an animal, and it can be a wild animal if we let it get out of control, so having young people be able to feel comfortable enough to reach out for help, whether that’s a guidance counselor, a parent … is key,” he said.
Most importantly, Coder said suicidal ideation and other mental illnesses are treatable. With “the proper medication, the proper help, you can live a long and productive life,” he said.
Parents and loved ones aren’t the only ones responsible for a child’s well-being, Coder said. Amazon and other corporations must play a role, too, in combating what should be a shared responsibility: suicide prevention, he said.
After hearing reports that the substance was used in suicide attempts, eBay prohibited the product’s global sale in 2019 and “update[d] its filters, which are used to detect and prevent the listing for sale of this chemical,” according to a 2020 letter from the company’s director. Etsy banned the substance, too, the National Institutes of Health reported.
“In contrast … Amazon made the informed decision, on the counsel and advice of their lawyers, to continue to sell a substance they know is sold over and over again for suicide,” attorneys wrote in their complaint.
U.S. Congress intervened in the matter in January, addressing a letter to Amazon CEO Adam Jassy for information about the company’s sale of the substance, according to the attorneys, who claim Amazon has yet to respond to the federal government’s inquiry.
“We have to see suicide as a multitiered problem,” Coder said. “We can’t rely on just behavioral health providers, we can’t just rely on churches; we have to rely on everybody when someone is struggling.”
For additional resources, visit the West Virginia Suicide Prevention Council.