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June 03, 2024 HUMAN RIGHTS

But Why Did They Keep Selling It?

By Carrie Goldberg

Content Warning: Suicide

That’s the trillion-dollar question and my only answer is: Because theyre Amazon and theywelldidnt feel like stopping.

In the summer of 2020, I was contacted by a mom whose son had tragically taken his life after discovering a pro-suicide website. She knew that my law firm was one of the only ones brazen (i.e., tolerant of losing) enough to litigate against technology platforms. What I saw on the site shocked and horrified me—a complex platform with everything from Wikipedia entries with instructions on ways to die, a Reddit-type bulletin board for users to exchange tips, and even a chatroom where people could livestream their deaths. One subject on the bulletin board had thousands of entries on sodium nitrate (SN). SN, as I’d soon learn, is an odorless powder that in its purest form can cause death within 20 minutes simply by mixing a teaspoon of it with water and drinking it. Unlike many other suicide methods, once you drink the solution, there’s no turning back. Instead, the body goes into methemoglobinemia, which is a fancy way of saying that all the organs are deprived of oxygen at once. It’s as fast as it is excruciating. I’d learn about the excruciation not from the website that purported SN to be a fast and painless method but from seeing photographs and hearing 911 calls.

Goldberg describes her firm's journey in taking on Amazon for continuing to sell the substance sodium nitrate, which was proven to be used in suicides

Goldberg describes her firm's journey in taking on Amazon for continuing to sell the substance sodium nitrate, which was proven to be used in suicides


A few months later, in February 2021, I was introduced by the same mom to Ruth, a woman from Schertz, Texas, whose 27-year-old son died in his childhood bedroom the previous December. His cause of death was classified as “TBD.” After police left the scene, Ruth noticed a peculiar white jar that said “Sodium Nitrite 98 percent pure” on it in the corner of Mikael’s bedroom. She dropped off the jar at the police station and told them she suspected it may explain Mikael’s death. Mikael’s phone showed that he’d visited the suicide website and a couple days before his death had purchased from Amazon SN and a small scale, which Prime delivered.

Investigating Ruth’s case, I saw that indeed Amazon sold a few brands of SN. But they did more than just sell and deliver it; they recommended other products that I’d seen on the suicide website as aids to successfully administer a lethal dose of SN. These products include a small scale like Mikael had bought, Tagamet antacid to prevent vomiting, a lockbox to stash it in, and, most shockingly, the “Amazon Edition” of a how-to manual for suicide with an entire chapter on euthanizing oneself with SN. Even more surprising were all the one-star user reviews alerting Amazon of the nephews, children, and spouses who had died from SN imploring Amazon to stop selling SN.

Ruth, an RN whose grief from losing her only child had forced her into unemployment, wanted just one thing: Amazon to stop selling the poison.

“No other parent should go through what I’m going through,” she said. This seemed easy enough. Surely, Amazon didn’t realize it was selling a suicide poison and would de-list it once they heard from my firm, I gallantly thought. Ruth wasn’t so sure. When she had tried in the days following Mikael’s death, an Amazon customer service representative named “Marvin” replied that he was “sorry about the trouble [she] had with the Sodium Nitrite. . . but at least your son is now on our God’s hand.” Marvin said he’d pass her message on to the “appropriate department in our company for consideration,” but three months later, Amazon was still selling it, and more heartbroken user reviews popped up in the product reviews.

Still, I expected this to be a quick letter, and the product removed forever. One and done. I described in my letter to Amazon’s general counsel how Mikael died and that this pro-suicide website was directing people to Amazon, which through its AI recommendation was bundling the product into kits. I let them know that other online retailers like Etsy had stopped selling it. One and done . . . ha. Instead, Amazon’s outside counsel sent me a terse head-pat-of-a-note assuring me Amazon had no liability because of a Texas law that offered companies an affirmative defense if their product was used for suicide. “There is no ‘applicable legal standard’ that would trigger the exception in that statute,” they told me. In closing, they suggested I let them know of any “authorities” I’d like them to consider. I’m not religious, but I wish I’d responded with “God.” Instead, I just replied with three questions that they ignored:

Is your client planning on removing sodium nitrite from retail?

Why? Why not?

Over the next several months, my brilliant associate, Naomi Leeds, spent hundreds of hours with forensic examiners, coroners, doctors, and police officers to learn everything she could about this obscure poison and arrange for Mikael’s blood to be tested for nitrites to confirm them as his cause of death. We learned that there was no household use for SN at the 99 percent pure concentration Amazon sold. (This, in contrast to curing salts, which is sometimes used to preserve meat at 6 percent pure; dyed pink for safety.) Though the telltale visuals, which I will not describe, at the death scene made it undeniable that SN was the cause of Mikael’s death, no lawyer—and we spoke to many—in Amazon’s home state of Washington would co-counsel with us New Yorkers unless his death certificate confirmed he died from this poison.

While we waited for the blood results, we pushed for the Department of Justice to go after the suicide website and sent more letters to Amazon’s lawyers urging them to take off their lawyer caps and instruct their clients on the ethics of not selling poison to suicidal people, especially during a raging pandemic. The New York Times did a piece on the suicide website, but despite our involvement in the article, they refused to acknowledge Amazon’s role in distributing the actual product the suicidal people were using to die. Fortunately, some amazing congressional aides from Lori Trahan’s office in Massachusetts saw my late-night tweet rants and contacted me to learn more about SN.

On January 25, 2022, Rep. Trahan (D-MA) joined by a group of seven congressional representatives who sent a letter to Amazon’s new president, Andy Jassy, expressing their grave concern that Amazon was selling a suicide chemical and asking for more information. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), whose son had died from suicide 26 days earlier, was one of the signatories.

A week later, shortly after Mikael’s blood tested at 577 times the reporting limit for nitrites/nitrates, we filed Ruth’s lawsuit, which centered around the fact that 99 percent SN has no household use. The same week, the New York Times featured Ruth, holding a picture of Mikael with his parrot, Max, on his belly. Yet, despite the added condemnation from Congress, a lawsuit, and a scathing article in the country’s newspaper of record, Amazon continued to sell SN.

Not long after we filed Ruth’s case, we heard from a California couple, Cindy and Jeff Cruz. It took many attempts before Cindy could speak to us without crying. In May 2021, Cindy and Jeff had been gone for just a couple hours for dinner, but when they went up to their son Tyler’s room, at age 17, the youngest of their four sons, to deliver his takeout, Tyler’s door wouldn’t open. Something heavy was up against it. He’d obviously been struggling to get out after he’d tested a sip of the drink. Tyler purchased the SN on May 22, just 11 days after Amazon’s lawyers told me there was no “applicable legal standard” to justify Amazon changing its tune about SN.

When we made a motion to join Tyler’s parents in the case, Amazon’s lawyers argued in court that it would be “unfair and inhumane” for Amazon to have to try the cases together. The judge repeated those words in the form of a question as she looked at Ruth, Cindy, and Jeff on Zoom. “Unfair and inhumane?” We won that motion. And the next one, Amazon moved to dismiss. We filed another lawsuit. This time for two kids.

In October 2022, after we were 18 months and two lawsuits into our adversarial relationship, Amazon finally delisted SN. Their lawyers, though, refused to say they were permanently banning it.

Everybody asks how, from a business standpoint, Amazon could possibly keep selling a suicide poison. After all, this company, worth a trillion dollars, is netting about $2.37 in revenue per unit of SN sold. Surely, they could have made so much more money off these customers over the course of their lives. There is no adequate answer. As a litigator, I wish I could see the question as a gift and an insight into what future jurors might think. Instead, I get frustrated and always hunt for a logical answer. People always commiserate that Amazon must be “burying us in papers.” Not surprisingly, they do try to appeal every motion we win. But Amazon, with all its wealth, power, insights, and technology, is truly no match for my clients. We’ve now filed for 12 families across five cases. The love and vengeance my clients have make them far more vicious and indefatigable an opponent than even Amazon. Last year, California passed “Tyler’s Law,” becoming the first state to ban SN. We are also working with representatives from New York and Colorado and have worked with Rep. Trahan’s office to draft a federal bill.

If youre feeling like you want to die or think you may be at risk of suicide, its important to reach out to someone. Help is available right now and you do not have to go through this alone. Call 988 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for free and confidential support, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you are in immediate danger or think someone is at risk of harm, contact your local emergency services. 

Carrie Goldberg

Owner, C.A. Goldberg, PLLC

Carrie Goldberg is the owner of C.A. Goldberg, PLLC, a law firm that represents families injured through technology. She has the privilege of litigating cases against Amazon with Naomi Leeds and Corrie Yackulic. Goldberg is the author of Nobodys Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls.