When school supplies and jewellery retailed by Amazon are found to contain excessive levels of toxic metals, one has to ask where the blame should fall: the retailer, the supplier, or quality control

Over the past few decades, the danger of poisoning by exposure to lead and other heavy metals has been taken so seriously that these substances have been all but wiped from the lexicon in today’s safety obsessed, health conscious, environmentally friendly world, but a simple slip in quality control can see the threat rearing its head in spectacular fashion.   

This is what happened during the early part of the year, when it was found that dozens of children’s school supplies sold on Amazon had illegal levels of toxic metals such as lead and cadmium.

Some of the worst of these contained up to 8 500 parts per million (ppm) of lead – which is more than 80 times the legal limit for children’s products as set by the United States Federal Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Having concluded his investigation, Washington State Attorney General, Bob Ferguson, said that individuals across America had made at least 15 188 purchases of products with illegal levels of lead and cadmium from Amazon.com.

To its credit, when Amazon learned of the outcome of the investigation, it contacted the purchasers and encouraged the disposal of the toxic items, while providing more than US$ 200 000 (about R2,8 million) in refunds.

“To resolve the investigation without a lawsuit, Amazon has entered into a nationwide legally binding agreement to block the sale of children’s schools supplies and jewellery on Amazon.com without lab reports and other proof from the sellers that the products are not toxic,” stated Ferguson

This is no simple task to implement, though. The company identified approximately 18 000 sellers in its marketplace that offer around 900 000 individual products related to the case.

“Customer safety is Amazon’s top priority. We work closely with our selling partners to verify that the school supplies and children’s jewellery in our store are safe, and drive continuous improvement to our processes to verify the safety of these products,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

In addition, Amazon will pay the Attorney General’s Office US$ 700 000 (about R10 million), which will be used to fund future efforts in environmental protection, including future investigations into toxic children’s products.

One would expect that in this interconnected, on-demand, socially accountable world a retail giant such as Amazon would ensure that the products it sells meet all legislative (and societal) standards… Reputational damage in today’s climate can happen in the blink of an eye.

Clearly, Amazon has been able to act with the required haste to halt any serious damage, but the lapse in quality control nonetheless turned very expensive, very quickly. It does beg the question, though, as to how many products on sale today are still dangerously below the required levels of product quality.

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