Amazon: Dangerous Levels of Mercury Found in Skin Creams Sold on Amazon (April 2019)
Often referred to as “quicksilver”, Mercury is a shiny, silvery, liquid metal that is placed on the periodic table as Hg. It is often used to make mirrors, fluorescent lights, thermometers, batteries, dental amalgams and some medicines. This metal provides us the ability to create such products. Unfortunately, after extensive research, mercury was determined to be highly toxic to people. This dangerous metal was not built to sustain in human bodies. Some people are exposed to low levels of mercury due to chronic exposure. This is when people are exposed to mercury vapors on a daily basis, often factory employees that use mercury for their manufacturing. But when the human body is exposed to high levels, mercury will start attacking the central and peripheral systems. An ambassador from the World Health Organization stated, “Symptoms include tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects, headaches and cognitive and motor dysfunction. Mild, subclinical signs of central nervous system toxicity can be seen in workers exposed to an elemental mercury level in the air of 20 μg/m3 or more for several years” When mercury enters our bloodstream, it affects our entire body. Lungs, kidneys, digestive and nervous systems are all compromised. Studies have even shown that mercury exposure can cause neurological and behavioral disorders.
Although this metal is extremely dangerous to us, people continue to use mercury in new products such as cosmetics. Skin lightening creams contain doses of mercury that essentially helps hide blemishes but as a result can cause serious damages. These creams are used as anti aging creams that remove dark aging spots, wrinkles, freckles and blemishes. In 1973, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of mercury in cosmetics that contain levels higher than 1 ppm (Parts Per Million). To help contain smuggling, the FDA also created an Import Alert. This was a program that legally allowed FDA agents to detain all skin lightening creams with mercury. This protocol was put in place due to the fact that forgien countries such as, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Thailand have a history of selling creams with levels of mercury that exceeds 1 ppm. The Zero Mercury Working Group (ZMWG) is an organization that tested 271 products. These products came from over 15 countries and the results were shocking. More than half the products contain mercury levels exceeding the legal limit. Michael Bender, international coordinator with the Mercury Policy Project expressed his thoughts, “It’s really concerning that these online manufacturers continue to sell and flaunt and profit from illegal products that are doing significant damage to consumers''. As the ZMWG continued to test these products, they detected that some of the products had levels of 65,000 ppm. The legal limit is no higher than 1 ppm. “We’re not finding 1ppm, we're finding products that are hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of times above 1ppm, '' Michael Bender said. “These levels are astronomical.”
In July of 2019, a 47 year old woman was poisoned by her skin lightening cream and fell into a coma. Her family stated that she used a cream imported from Mexico by the name of Pond’s Rejuveness. Twice a day, she applied the product to her face for seven long years. This woman started to feel the effects, complaining of arm weakness and odd pricking sensation. Two weeks later, she went back to the hospital with blurred vision and slurred speech. She was admitted into the University of California San Francisco Hospital. Her condition rapidly declined until the doctors declared her to be in a comatose. Their test results indicated high levels of mercury that was then later connected to her cream. Officials tested her cream quickly and found the culprit. Her skin lightening cream contained 12,000 ppm of mercury. This woman was quickly placed on twenty-four hour supervision and treatments of chelation to help flush out the metal from her system. “Central nervous system toxicity, as in this case, is the hallmark of organic mercury. It typically comes on after weeks to months of exposure. Once manifested, it quickly progresses and often worsens, despite removal of any further exposure. The patient was unable to speak or care for herself, relying on a feeding tube for nutrition”, Dr Paul Blanc of San Francisco Hospital stated.
After the ZMGW tested thousands of products and determined them to be illegal, companies began to pull those products off their shelves. Companies such as Amazon, is a huge brand where people can sell their products on Amazon’s platform. Amazon claimed to have pulled those illegal products off their website and installed proactive measures to prevent suspicious products from being listed. But still, officials found certain products still on the inventory of Amazon. “The companies are evading responsibility, '' Bender said.
“They knowingly profit from the illegal trade of highly toxic products,” he stated. On April 17, 2019 Amazon was sued under the Toxic Enforcement Act. This lawsuit claims that Amazon had exposed customers to mercury with the knowledge of these products being filed as illegal. The lawsuit also claims that Amazon allowed these skin lightening creams to be sold on their websites without any of the required warnings. These consumers legally have the right to read the warning of mercury exposure before buying the product. Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow stated, “Amazon has effectively created a black market where products are being sold without full compliance with U.S. laws. By actively recruiting individuals and companies from all over the world to place products on the Amazon marketplace, without ensuring those products are safe and lawful, Amazon’s business model allows sellers to avoid critical health and safety compliance. It is not acceptable for Amazon to expose hundreds of millions of consumers to health and safety risks.” In response to such claims, Amazon responded back saying “Third-party vendors who use its site are responsible for the product’s safety, because Amazon and similar companies merely provide a platform”. To summarize, Amazon feels that they don't have the responsibility of the consumers safety. The case went to the California Court of Appeals and ruled that Amazon and all other companies must warn their consumers when they or a third party is selling mercury contaminated products. Unfortunately this ruling only applies to the state of California, but this is the first step into making a difference.
The stakeholders in this case are the consumers, cosmetics manufacturers, and public health agency staff. As for the consumers, they are the ones that are buying the laced products and are the ones that can stop the use of skin-lightening and blemish-removing creams that have mercury in them. A more enforced policy on this skin cream would help to protect them from getting seriously injured. Cosmetic manufacturers have found that if they self-regulate their products, it becomes very costly, and this way of going about this does not allow for fair competition from other manufacturers. The public health agency staff members that know there is an issue going on with people being exposed to unsafe amounts of mercury are not doing everything in their power to help stop this issue. Yes, they have put many regulations and policies in place to try and stop the sale of mercury-laced skin, but their resources are limited. They cannot see everything that is being sold because companies leave out ingredients from the ingredients list. It is very hard for health agencies to notice items with high mercury levels without doing extensive research, which is very expensive.
In the California case from 2019 there are a few different stakeholders. The most affected stakeholder would be the woman who ended up in the hospital and her son. Not only did she suffer from physical sickness due to using the product, but her son also suffered. Her son and even the woman herself most likely suffered from emotional trauma. She became so ill that she ended up in a semi-comatose state from using what should be a harmless product. Because there was no warning of the mercury in the product their lives would never be the same again. That woman suffered so that the curators of the product could earn a higher revenue. The creators of the product are also stakeholders in this. Even though they are hard to pinpoint, they are liable for what happened to the woman and should be held responsible. If they are ever caught, they could lose their business and potentially see further punishment. Lastly, the online retailers of such products are also stakeholders. As they are the ones acting as a platform to sell the product, it is part of their responsibility to ensure the safety of the product. While different retailers have their own opinions on how third-party products should be handled, it is more common than not that the retailers don’t feel they should be liable for a product that isn’t directly theirs if a problem were to occur. With the California case, Amazon was directly affected and forced to make changes to their policies.
The stakeholders in this case include Amazon and other similar companies, the customers, and the general public. Since these companies are responsible to ensure sellers in their community are selling safe and legal products, this will affect their further success and customer outcome. The lack of paying close attention and reviewing what these third-party sellers are carrying will cause sites such as Amazon to look bad. Amazon and the other companies who trust their third-party sellers to make their company look good, now face being sued or having a bad reputation for the illegal distribution sellers have done on their website. The customers are affected using these products by getting injured by the over amounts of mercury in what they are buying. The general public is affected because now that these skin creams are out in the world, customers who have bought these may have shared them with friends or family or even purchased them as a gift to someone not knowing what they were really giving to that person.
Individualism’s primary values are the “business, the owners’ choices and business profits.” (Salazar 17) The rule states that “business actions should maximize profits for the owners of business but do so within the law.” (Salazar 17) In the case of Amazon and other companies the third-party sellers along with other companies dismissed individualism by illegally selling and making products that carried above the maximum mercury allowed in something.
Amazon and other similar companies
The third-party sellers for Amazon or even eBay represent the big companies, helping to make them successful. Unfortunately, Amazon and similar companies are now being viewed as making money by selling illegal products that are unlawful. Here the third parties are looking to make money and not looking out for the people buying. In some cases, Amazon and these other companies are responsible just as much for not thoroughly inspecting who is selling on their website but only looking for the profit side of things.
Customers have the option to keep buying from these companies or look elsewhere. Knowing what has happened and what has been sold, may affect whether they continue to shop with these companies. For the people affected by the mercury, passing out or getting injured by the toxicity, they will be able to sue for the damage that was caused to themselves. It is within their rights and entitlement to get compensation for what was caused to them. They shouldn’t have to face problems when the seller should know what is safe and legal to sell.
The general public has the power to be self-reliant and look out for themselves. Instead of relying on the government and companies to change, they can take things into their own hands. They can simply not buy from these companies that have been known to sell such products or protest against the companies.
A utilitarian would not agree with Amazon's recent decisions. Amazon has ignored US regulations on products that contain mercury and continues to fight against their lawsuit. As a result, the Court of Appeals has agreed that Amazon has the responsibility to warn their customers prior to the purchase of skin lightening creams. A utilitarian values happiness through all their actions and opposes actions that cause unhappiness or harm. “Business actions should aim to maximize happiness in the long run for all conscious beings that are affected by the business action”, stated by Salazer, 17. In this case, happiness was not reached for most of the stakeholders stated below.
Third Party Vendors: The specific vendor parties that manufactured skin lightening creams with high levels of mercury will be affected. Although some blame goes towards Amazon for allowing the selling and distribution, the third party vendors are the people who actually made these dangerous creams. After the lawsuit was issued, US officials began to find the specific vendor parties that made the creams, many of these businesses from forign countries were shut down. But unfortunately when one business is shut down, another 2 replaces it.
Previous Amazon Customers: As for the previous Amazon customers, they were definitely affected by the actions of Amazon. Without any knowledge of the mercury warning, these customers bought their creams obliviously. After the suit, a handful of customers were compensated for their medical bills and emotional distress.
Future Shareholder & Customers: The reputation of Amazon all depends on whether new shareholders and customers will trust their company again. Although Amazon has made some mistakes in the past that a utilitarian would not agree with, Amazon seems to be trying to make up for their mistakes. And so if Amazon continues to go in this right direction, then more shareholders and customers will choose Amazon. The value of Amazon will rise, and as a result, giving Amazon a better value.
Kantianism is a very important theory when talking about mercury being in skin creams. The thinking of a Kantian can be summarized in the following: the motive can be more important than the consequences, even if the motive is wrong. You believe that the motivation that drives you to do something is more important than the consequences of whatever action you take. Kantianism was discovered by Immanuel Kant. Some of the basic principles of his thinking are: "don’t act inconsistently in your own actions or consider yourself exempt from rules. Allow and assist people in making rational decisions. Be motivated by good will, seeking to do what is right because it is right. " Another way that Kantianism is evaluated is by the actions as coming from the Good Woll or Not. The actions that come from Good Will are right (rational) and brightly motivated. Right you have done the correct thing and you have done what is morally permissible or morally required of you to do. There are three formulations of categorical imperative: those are the formula of Universal Law, of Humanity, and Autonomy. The one that is of the most importance is the Formula of Humanity. The formula goes “act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant, MM 429). An example of this in the business world is withholding information from customers so that they will buy a product they would otherwise be wary of purchasing.
When it comes to Amazon and other online platforms that are selling these illegal products, they try to make it seem like they are in no way liable for people buying mercury-laced skin products off their site. Even though they are the ones in contract with the third-party vendors and they are responsible for regulating their items. They put regulations and rules in place to help their consumers, but their greed and care for making a profit outweighs the consequences of people being seriously injured by these creams. In most cases, with e-commerce sites selling products containing contaminated skin creams, it always comes back to money and being motivated by money. They put rules in place saying they prohibit the sale of mercury over 1 ppm, but they do not enforce them. They only enforce it when articles come out saying products from their platform are over the legal limit. That is when they will intervene. They all care about money and do not care about any consequences that may come.
Virtue theory, also known as virtue ethics, is based on what is known as the original ethical theory curated by Aristotle. The basic overview of Aristotle’s theory is that people who live their life to the fullest will have the happiest lives. There is a considerable difference between virtue ethics and Utilitarianism or Kantianism. In Utilitarianism and Kantianism there is only one focus, the morality of certain actions people do. In virtue theory, the focus is on the overall character of a person. It doesn’t question the acts that a person participates in, it questions what made them do such an act. From one culture to another there are many different lists of virtues, making the theory somewhat controversial. Virtue theory assumes that one universal list of virtues exists that every person in the world follows. This is not entirely true, leading many to oppose the idea of virtue ethics. In terms of business, there are also many different virtues that should be followed based on the theory. There is often the question “why be virtuous?” (Desjardins, 26). There should be virtue in business because it can increase the possibility that people, and organizations will reach their goals. In business, virtue emphasizes how crucial each employee is in contributing to the value of their company. It is important that corporate cultures can “reinforce virtues and discourage vice” (Desjardins, 28).
Some of the virtues of business include temperance, honesty, and reliability. Considering the 2019 California case, one could argue that none of these virtues were really followed. But this example is also tricky because according to the skin cream company, Ponds, the addition of mercury was not their own doing. Regardless of who’s fault it is, there was a failure of protecting the customer. They did not keep her safe and she suffered greatly from that. It is reasonable that the woman would believe that the skin cream should be relatively safe for her to use. She was not expecting that she would suffer mercury poisoning upon using the product. She was expecting her skin to look better like the cream was advertised to do. There was also no reliability with this. After this came out, it became hard for some to rely on skin care brands that they may have been using and/or looking into. If some of these products were using mercury in legal amounts, how many other brands were doing the same, what brands could they really trust to work as they are supposed to without posing a health risk? Third parties were and still are profiting off of these products. They are profiting off of the possibility that a person could end up hospitalized or even dead. As long as their product sells and earns them money then they see no issue, a prime example of business without virtues.
Zero Mercury Working Group tested 217 skin lightening products from 15 different countries and found that nearly half of them to be contaminated with levels of about 1ppm of Mercury. Many of these products that were tested are sold by Amazon and other big name companies. Amazon can stop the sale of these products and will make sure that these products show all ingredients so people know what they are buying. The FDA does have regulations on mercury in face creams and Amazon will help with these regulations by funding it. High quality and trustable products are one Amazon's top priorities. Amazon's new mission statement should be to serve customers with the most trustable and high quality products through online and physical stores, focused on price and convenience. This compares to Amazon’s current mission statement which is: “To serve consumers through online and physical stores and focus on selection, price, and convenience." The new statement ensures the customer that Amazon is doing everything they can to sell products that will benefit and help the customer rather than make them ill with the mercury full face products. One of the core values when it comes to this company is to ensure that there is a mutual trust between the customers and the third party vendors. This stems from Amazon making sure their third party vendors are not doing anything illegal or selling a false product. It would be very important for Amazon to go the extra mile to list all ingredients in their products and make it very clear to the customers what exactly they are buying because most times someone has no idea their face product has any levels of mercury in it.
T. Millerick, R. Kukharchuk, E. Lyons, and M. Cosme-Plein
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