So-called Virus Shut Out Cards promise to ward off the coronavirus. Hang one around your neck with a lanyard, and sellers say the air around your mouth and nose will be disinfected.
But there’s a one big hitch: Federal regulators have repeatedly called these cards junk science.
“Customs and Border Protection has actually seized 36,000 of them since the pandemic began,” said John Leonard, the CBP Executive Director for Trade Policy. “They’re a product that quite simply does not have any efficacy in preventing Covid-19.”
Despite clear language from the Environmental Protection Agency, banning the sale of Virus Shut Out cards, the I-Team found the cards openly sold on Amazon and eBay.
Some of the ads even professed the cards are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. They are not.
The cards are often advertised as containing sodium chlorite or sodium dioxide, chemicals that have legitimate uses as pesticides and bleaching agents. But Amy Miller, the EPA’s Regional Director for Enforcement in San Francisco said those chemicals are definitely not approved for purifying air leading to human respiratory systems.
“The chemical itself that’s being used in the product, it’s a respiratory irritant and you’re going to be breathing it in. And it’s very harmful,” Miller said.
Dr. Peter Lurie, President of the nonprofit watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, said bleaching agents have often been advertised as miracle products during the pandemic.
"Bleach has its own appeal because people are used to it and have seen it do miraculous things in front of your eyes. Stains disappear so people can understand that this might be an active product,” Lurie said. “People are desperate and so they fall for this. I mean it's really awful.”
Both eBay and Amazon removed the Virus Shut Out cards from their platforms after the I-Team notified the companies about them. They also stressed they require independent sellers to follow the law.
“Bad actors intentionally evaded our detection system to list the products in question,” the Amazon statement read. “The products have been removed and we are taking action against the bad actors that listed them.” Amazon also noted that it has successfully blocked or removed 6.5 million products since the pandemic began.
A statement from eBay said the company is updating its filters to block Virus Shut Out cards.
“We have been taking significant measures to block or quickly remove items on our marketplace that make false health claim,” the eBay statement read.
Though online marketplaces insist they cooperate with federal regulators to keep bogus products off their sites, critics say they have little incentive to crack down because companies like Amazon and eBay have been mostly exempt from product liability laws.
“These companies are increasingly powerful here in Washington and they have done a great job of insulating themselves from regulatory oversight,” said Jack Gillis, Executive Director of the Consumer Federation of America.
Amazon and eBay are currently arguing in several state courts about whether they should be treated more like traditional retailers - who would face liability if they sold prohibited products.