EPA Cracking Down on Misbranded Coronavirus Treatment Products (Corrected)

April 1, 2020, 2:37 PM; Updated: April 10, 2020, 3:59 PM

The EPA is stepping up enforcement against products making unproven antiviral or disinfectant claims in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently blocked a shipment of allegedly antimicrobial plastic cards from Japan and Hong Kong from entering U.S. ports in Honolulu and Guam. The cards, containing chlorine dioxide and worn on a lanyard around the neck, falsely claimed they provided anti-viral and anti-bacterial protection, the agency said.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” said Thomas Brugato, special counsel at Covington and Burling LLP who specializes in environmental and pesticide law. “I think we’ll definitely see more cases like this.”

Given the clear public health implication of pandemic, it was only a matter of time before the EPA began targeting consumer products making unverified anti-viral claims like the ones in the blocked shipments, Brugato said.

The agency said it’s working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to monitor and possibly deny entry of other products making illegal claims. Meanwhile, Amazon.com Inc. removed the plastic cards, made by Japan’s Toamit Company, from its online marketplace at the agency’s request.

“It is critical that people only use EPA-registered disinfectants and follow label directions for proper use,” said John Busterud, the agency’s Pacific Southwest regional administrator. “EPA will not tolerate companies selling illegal disinfectants and making false or misleading public health claims during this pandemic crisis.”

Using unregistered or misbranded products can be harmful to human health, cause adverse effects, and fail to stop the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, the EPA said.

Adhering to Standards

The ramped up enforcement on bogus disinfectants stands in contrast with the agency’s guidance document released March 26 that allowed enforcement discretion for a variety of environment regulations in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Products that claim to kill or repel bacteria or germs are considered pesticides under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and therefore must be registered with the EPA before they’re distributed or sold. Disinfectants used against microorganisms are considered antimicrobial pesticides.

The EPA reviews product data as part of the registration process to see if they adhere to federal standards for safety and efficacy, an agency spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law.

“Unregistered products have not had the same review,” she said.

The agency said monitoring occurs by screening products intended for import, as well as following up on tips and complaints. Enforcement is typically issued through stop-sale orders and penalty actions authorized under FIFRA sections 13 and 14, respectively.

Working With Groups

In addition to Customs and Border Protection, the government also works with industry trade groups to identify and flag knockoff products on various e-commerce platforms.

“The coronavirus pandemic further highlights the dangers that can come from unregulated and illegal products making false claims, and in this case, that can cause serious public health concerns,” said Owen Caine, executive vice president of government relations at the Household and Commercial Products Association.

When consumers evaluate products that can be used to fight Covid-19, Caine said it is imperative that they follow the direction of the EPA’s list of approved antimicrobial products.

“Too many bad actors exist on the Internet, making false claims about what their products can do, and this situation highlights why there needs to be more regulation on e-commerce platforms,” he said.

In response to the new coronavirus, the EPA has employed an expedited process for reviewing products making antimicrobial or anti-viral claims, often returning a decision within 14 days, compared to the 90 days it normally takes. Once such claims are approved, these disinfectants can be labeled and marketed accordingly.

(Fixes name of Household and Commercial Products Association in 14th paragraph of story that originally ran April 1.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Adam Allington in Washington at aallington@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergenvironment.com

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