More than 15,000 people bought on Amazon school supplies and jewelry geared toward young children that contained dangerous levels of lead and cadmium in 2017 and 2018, Washington state investigators found.
Even after Amazon was notified of the illegal children’s products and said it had removed them, investigators found some of the same products again, as well as others that contained the metals at levels well beyond the legal maximum. Both lead and cadmium can cause damage to the nervous system, liver, kidneys and other internal organs, and are especially harmful to children.
Under an agreement announced Thursday by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Amazon must require third-party sellers of these products to provide certificates proving their safety and compliance with U.S. and Washington consumer-protection statutes. Manufacturers and importers already must have such certification but ordinarily they aren’t required to show it to retailers or distributors. Amazon admits no wrongdoing in the agreement.
The Seattle-based technology and commerce giant will also pay Ferguson’s office $700,000, funding for continued investigations into environmental and product safety issues.
About 600 of those sales were to customers in Washington state, the AG’s office said.
The products, mostly made in China, were sold on Amazon by third-party merchants, an increasingly important part of its retail business. These sellers, who use Amazon’s marketplace and logistics network to reach customers, in 2018 represented 58% of the company’s gross merchandise sales — a fact touted by founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in his annual letter to shareholders last month. Amazon collected nearly $43 billion in commissions and fees from third-party sellers in 2018.
The investigation began in spring of 2017, shortly after Ferguson established a new environmental protection unit in the attorney general’s office.
Investigators worked with researchers at the state Department of Ecology, who had previously studied school supplies and other seasonal products suspected of containing high levels of dangerous metals.
During the 2017 back-to-school shopping season, they purchased 43 products on Amazon – things like plush pencil pouches and backpacks with cartoon characters and bright colors meant to appeal to children under 12. Test results came back in early 2018: 16 of the 43 products had illegal levels of lead and cadmium.
“That is deeply concerning for children’s health,” said Ferguson, who has 11-year-old twins and noted that kids often spend a lot of time with beloved items.
“We’re talking about products that kids are chewing on and holding on all day long and all night long,” he said.
Ferguson’s office sent Amazon civil investigative demands for documents related to the products, making Amazon aware of the test results. Those findings “would have popped on Amazon’s radar” in April 2018, said Kelly Wood, an assistant attorney general in the environmental protection unit.
The company notified investigators right away that it had removed the illegal products from its site, Wood said.
“We immediately went back on the website and were able to find those products again,” he said.
Investigators made another round of purchases in fall of 2018. This time, 35 of 41 products purchased on Amazon.com surpassed legal limits for lead or cadmium, some with many times the legal maximum, which is 100 parts per million for lead and 40 ppm for cadmium.
The company met with investigators in December 2018. At that point, Wood said, Amazon had removed the illegal items. They started negotiations about a potential remedy and the company was cooperative and seemed eager to resolve the issue, he said.
Wood said it wasn’t clear to investigators what Amazon had been doing to ensure compliance with consumer safety laws on the part of its third-party merchants prior to their investigation.
“They are a bit of a black box in terms of their internal procedures,” Woods said.
A company representative said in a statement that “customer safety is Amazon’s top priority,” but did not answer specific questions about how it ensures that safety, including whether it audits third-party sellers or whether any of the third-party sellers of unsafe school supplies and children’s jewelry had been sanctioned or removed from its marketplace.
Ferguson, in the press conference Thursday, said, “candidly, Amazon wasn’t getting the job done. You can’t really sugarcoat it.”
Wood said the toxic materials were typically found in metal parts such as zipper pulls and grommets, and in paints and decorations. A plush green frog, basically a stuffed animal with a pencil pouch, has two plastic eyes that had lead levels of 8,500 parts per million.
All or nearly all of the products tested as part of the investigation were manufactured in China, Wood said.
“I don’t think it’s any secret that they have more relaxed standards on manufacturing than we have in this country,” he added.
It is the responsibility of manufacturers and importers of these products to produce a Children’s Product Certificate, which must be based on an accredited laboratory’s test results and assure distributors and retailers of compliance with U.S. laws. These certificates are not typically signaled to consumers as part of a product’s packaging; instead, shoppers rely on the retailer, who must be in possession of the CPC.
Ferguson’s office said in a news release that Amazon had notified purchasers of the unsafe products, issued more than $200,000 in refunds and has provided information to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission “to initiate a recall process.”
No recall notices related to the products in question were listed on the CPSC’s website as of Thursday afternoon, and a spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on potential recalls.
There is a recall listed for a children’s musical instrument set with high lead levels sold exclusively on Amazon.com in the summer of 2018. That would appear to be outside of the product categories that were the subject of this investigation.
“We remain interested in looking at these products and other products both at Amazon and at other retailers and plan to continue doing this line of work,” Wood said.
This story has been updated to correctly describe the agreement’s requirement concerning certificates attesting to the safety of imported products under U.S. law.