SEATTLE – As they enter the holiday shopping season, online marketplaces Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc. are fending off reports about products with high mercury levels being sold on their websites in more evidence that the convenience of online shopping can come with product safety risks.
Activist groups including the Sierra Club purchased 158 skin-lightening products from Amazon and eBay marketplaces in 12 countries — including the U.S. — and found that 60 percent were contaminated by mercury.
“One major problem is that none of the products list mercury as an ingredient on the label, so it is impossible for an individual to know the product could be deadly,” said Sonya Lunder, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, which partnered with Zero Mercury Working Group and The Beautywell Project on the product tests.
Many of the brands have already been identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies for mercury contamination, which should make it easy for marketplaces to keep the products off their sites, she said.
An Amazon spokeswoman said the products are prohibited and “are no longer available.”
“All Marketplace sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account,” the spokeswoman said.
The company said it uses tools to scan products on the site and block those suspected of violating its polities.
In an emailed statement, eBay said it was reviewing the report to make sure it removed any contaminated products.
“Consumers can shop eBay’s 1-plus-billion items with confidence, knowing we have key partnerships and processes in place with product manufacturers and regulators to ensure a safe shopping experience,” a spokesperson for the firm said.
Mercury is a frequent ingredient in a fast-growing market for skin-lightening creams and soaps. The market is estimated to be worth about $20 billion annually, which includes legitimate and safe products, counterfeits of those products, and the cheap soaps and creams that are most likely to contain mercury.
“This is really just the tip of the iceberg of a much bigger problem,” said Janet Nudelman, director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics launched by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners. “The real problem is big companies like Amazon don’t have adequate processes in place to make sure the beauty products they are selling are safe, so watchdog groups have to police the site for them.”
Online marketplaces, which connect buyers and sellers on digital platforms, can be havens for unsafe and counterfeit products. For that reason, government and advocacy groups often purchase products on the sites and test them.
In May, Amazon agreed to tighten the quality control standards on its marketplace after an investigation by Washington’s attorney general determined that Amazon had sold more than 15,000 products — including children’s jewelry and school supplies — containing illegal levels of the toxic metals lead and cadmium.