AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Amazon says that product safety is a top priority and that it uses sophisticated technology to make sure everything sold on its site follows the law. But NPR has found more than 100 dietary supplements sold by third parties on Amazon have made false and potentially illegal claims that they can fight viruses. Amazon - which takes a cut of the sales - has been slow to police its marketplace, and public health experts say these claims are especially concerning during the pandemic. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been looking into this and joins us now.
TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.
CHANG: All right, so can you just first explain what specifically could be illegal here?
DREISBACH: Well, under federal law, it's generally illegal for any dietary supplement to claim it can prevent or treat any virus or specific disease. That of course includes COVID-19, but it's true for all viruses. And Amazon's own internal policy on dietary supplements follows that rule, and the company says they proactively work to prevent any false or illegal claims from ending up on the site in their first place. And if any offending products get through, they say they move quickly to take them down.
CHANG: But a lot of these products are getting through. They're getting put up on the site.
DREISBACH: That's right. So we first heard about this issue from a public health watchdog group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest. They found 46 separate dietary supplements on Amazon that claimed they could fight viruses. And at NPR, we found about 100 more on top of that - stuff like...
DREISBACH: ...Mushroom powders, elderberry tinctures and also this stuff called colloidal silver, which is basically a liquid with tiny silver particles in it. Colloidal silver is not considered safe or effective for treating any medical condition at all. It can have very serious side effects at high doses, including permanently staining your skin blue.
CHANG: Oh, my God.
DREISBACH: But on Amazon, we actually found colloidal silver products marketed for use by kids and this sponsored ad on Amazon for a company called My Doctor Suggests.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The purpose of these products is to deliver silver in a safe method so that it will destroy bacteria, viruses or yeast inside the body or outside the body.
DREISBACH: Now, those claims are just not backed up by the scientific evidence. That company, My Doctor Suggests - they were actually sued by the Department of Justice for COVID-19-related fraud. But despite that lawsuit, the ad was still up on Amazon until we started asking questions.
CHANG: Well, beyond the lack of scientific evidence here, are there other reasons public health groups are concerned about this?
DREISBACH: Right. There's several issues. I mean, one, experts just say it's a waste of money when people's budgets are very tight. The other issue is that claiming a supplement is antiviral, you know, might give people a false sense of security during the pandemic, and...
DREISBACH: You might think you're safer. You don't have to do the things that we know do work - right? - like wearing a mask, washing your hands or social distancing. And if you don't do that kind of thing, it could be really dangerous.
CHANG: So how has Amazon responded so far?
DREISBACH: Well, they say they take swift action whenever they hear about these kinds of issues. They point out that they've blocked, they say, more than 6 million products from entering the marketplace. But in this case, they've been slow or even sometimes completely unresponsive to our questions. They did remove some of the claims and said they took action against bad actors. But, you know, we mentioned that we found more than 100 other products with these issues. They have not taken those products down for the most part as of now.
And we reached out to U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who's been a tough critic of them on these issues. He's a prominent Democrat. He said in a statement, quote, "Amazon has shown during this crisis a willful pattern of negligence and malaise in the face of rampant and illegal conduct by its sellers, conduct that poses profound dangers to consumers."
CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Dreisbach.
Thank you, Tom.
DREISBACH: Thanks, Ailsa.
CHANG: And just a note that Amazon provides funding support to NPR.
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