Toxic Chemicals for Sale: The Dangers of eBay

Amy Hawthorne

by Amy Hawthorne

24th June 2014

As we’ve mentioned before, selling toxic chemicals isn’t a simple, breezy process. There are standards in place throughout the entire process to ensure safety during packaging, labelling, shipping and storing. These stringent requirements must be met in order to be sure you’re selling toxic chemicals legally and aren’t posing a threat to your buyer or postal workers.

Unfortunately, we have been made aware of individuals and companies selling toxic chemicals on online auction sites such as eBay, without the required safety information or processes. It’s not that eBay doesn’t provide guidelines for selling chemicals and hazardous substances, but that sellers are either unaware of the regulations or have chosen to ignore them.

This posed questions about whether eBay’s guidelines are detailed enough and why eBay doesn’t have systems in place to completely prohibit the illegal selling of toxic chemicals.

Why doesn't eBay have systems in place to completely prohibit the illegal selling of toxic chemicals?

Why doesn’t eBay have systems in place to completely prohibit the illegal selling of toxic chemicals?

eBay’s “Hazardous and explosive materials policy”

eBay has compiled a list of banned or restricted items that includes the categories ‘Chemicals’, ‘Pesticides and poisons’ and ‘Other hazardous materials’. This list appears on their ‘Hazardous and explosive materials policy’.

eBay has put guidelines in place which state that “there are a few types of ‘dangerous goods’ that may be legally transported provided they are properly packaged and labelled”. They then list two measures that items have to follow in order to fit into that description;

a)      Clearly describe the hazardous nature of the product

b)      Specify a delivery method that meets legal and postal/courier requirements

There are no further instructions to the seller about how to meet these two requirements, but it’s possible that eBay are assuming that anyone selling toxic chemicals are already aware of the legal safety protocols.

eBay offers links to Royal Mail and An Post about their terms and conditions for posting dangerous goods, as well as a link to the government website which provides brief information on labelling and transporting goods.

Sounds like eBay has got everything covered?

What eBay’s policy doesn’t include

As a chemical manufacturing and supplying organisation, ReAgent stays up-to-date with advancements in the field of rules and regulations. There are so many guidelines we have to follow to be legally able to sell chemicals. It’s clear that not all eBay users that sell chemicals do so responsibly and legally, but eBay’s policy page doesn’t provide a thorough enough explanation of how to package and transport hazardous chemicals.

The policy is missing detailed information about how hazardous items should be properly packaged, labelled and transported.

Labels should strictly contain substantial information regarding the classification of the packaged chemical, how to store and transport the product, how to handle the product and any other safety precautions that need to be put in place before or after handling.

In addition, transport labels should follow the BS 56093 standard for the classification and labelling of chemical products. BS 56093 states that ink used on a label should be durable enough to be immersed in sea water for three months and still be legible.

When it comes to shipping, toxic chemicals need to be transported via ADR couriers. ADR couriers are fully trained in understanding chemical hazards as well as knowing how to handle various chemicals to ensure safety to themselves and the environment. Some eBay sellers of toxic chemicals have chosen to disclose their transport method of Royal Mail, subsequently endangering postal workers and customers.

Royal Mail lists items you cannot send in the post, which includes examples of corrosive substances that can cause severe damage to living tissue or transport. This list includes caustic soda, but on further research, we found that many eBay sellers are actually choosing Royal Mail to ship their caustic soda.

eBay does state that if your hazardous product doesn’t follow the guidelines “it may be removed and your buying and selling privileges could be restricted”. But are there no precautions in place to ensure hazardous products cannot pass the initial upload process if they don’t follow legal requirements?

Toxic Chemicals for Sale

Despite the policy page, it seems like it’s easy for buyers to slip through the net when selling dangerous goods. After some investigation into eBay’s world of chemicals, we had a look at the products we were able to buy. The accessibility of potentially lethal chemicals listed without adequate safety information was scary.

It’s obvious that eBay doesn’t have enough checks in place to ensure that listed products conform to their terms and conditions of selling hazardous materials, as they haven’t removed some dangerous products that are not properly described. The threat to consumers is worrying, as buyers are often unaware of the potential hazards of particular substances.

We focused on just three items we found listed on eBay that go against regulations.

Handling toxic chemicals should always be done by a trained professional wearing PPE

Handling toxic chemicals should always be done by a trained professional wearing PPE

1. Hydrofluoric acid (HF)

You may already know the dangers associated with hydrofluoric acid. In summary, it dissolves glass and humans. Don’t get it on your skin as it can easily absorb and burn through bone marrow, leading to a cardiac arrest. It should not be handled by non-professionals and anyone handling HF should be trained in the substance and always wear full PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).

Despite this, we are easily able to order HF from one seller on eBay and have it delivered to our door.

A legal requirement for the sale of HF is an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). You have to scroll down the item’s page somewhat, but this eBay seller states in small text at the bottom-right of the page that an MSDS is available for download from their website or can be requested. This approach to providing an MSDS is acceptable for some classifications of chemicals, but not for something as dangerous as hydrofluoric acid, where an MSDS isn’t just an optional extra.

2. Hydrogen Peroxide (2(HO))

In highly-diluted solutions, hydrogen peroxide is safe and may be used for medical, cleaning and hair-bleaching purposes. It is for sale on eBay in a concentration level of 35%. (For comparison purposes- for bleaching hair, it is usually mixed with water in a 6-8% solution.)

Hydrogen peroxide has been used in rocket engines and bombs, and it should not be sold without following regulations and having a contract signed by the customer about their intentions of use.

The seller of this bottle of hydrogen peroxide has one reference to the precautions that should be taken: “hydrogen peroxide should never be used at full 35% strength and should be diluted with distilled or tap water”. There is no information on the listing to say that the packaging and shipping methods conform to legal or eBay regulations.

3. Mercury (Hg)

Liquid mercury is also on sale (at the time of writing) for £10. Not as common as it once was, mercury has been replaced in many of its functions due to its toxicity. Strict safety procedures should be put in place to avoid exposure as this substance can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, and both occurrences can cause poisoning. Despite this, no safety information is listed on the eBay advert.

The only text that goes with this ad? – “Old liquid mercury found in shed”, followed by some vague information about where buyers can collect this from.

It is a relief that this seller doesn’t seem willing to post mercury dangerously via post, but the listing ignores eBay’s policies about displaying safety information with toxic chemicals and has gotten through eBay’s seemingly flexible filter.

Dangers of unrestricted chemicals

A huge risk of selling toxic chemicals on any online marketplace is the invisibility of your buyer and the fact that you don’t know his or her intentions. This is why all toxic chemicals should be purchased through legitimate companies that follow the correct legal procedures to minimise public risk.

The concern lies in the possible illegal intentions that buyers of unregulated chemicals may have. There have been cases where a citizen has gotten their hands on chemicals and built deadly bombs, weapons or other dangerous items with them. One incident that stands out in history is Norway’s 2011 terror attacks carried out by Behring Breivik, who used sulphur powder purchased from eBay.

At ReAgent, whenever we receive a request that may be flagged as suspicious, we inform the police who can carry out checks on the intentions of use for the chemical.

If you must buy dangerous goods from an online auction or classified ads site, make sure the seller is being responsible and following regulations and be sure you’ve done your own research on the products. By understanding potential hazards and guides for handling toxic chemicals, you can reduce the risk of danger to yourself and others.

38 Degrees is a company which aims to take action against issues that are bothering the public or affecting the environment. They have set up a petition to get eBay to remove illegal substances from their site, with a focus on bee-killing pesticides. You can read the argument made by 38 Degrees and eBay’s reply.

Do you have any suggestions on how eBay could improve their regulation process? Should they stop allowing the sale of chemicals altogether, or is that not a plausible solution? Feel free to leave your thoughts. 


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