A worrying number of products sold on Amazon have exploded or started fires, raising concerns about public safety as more and more Americans turn to online retailers during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, CNN published an investigation detailing dozens of incidents in which products sold under the AmazonBasics label — including USB cables, surge protectors, toasters, and microwaves — short-circuited, melted, or exploded in customers’ homes or vehicles. The next day, Senate Democrats called on Amazon to stop sales of the products and issue a recall.
The AmazonBasics label is heavily promoted on Amazon and includes cheaper versions of common household products. There are currently more than 5,000 products sold under this label.
In its investigation, CNN scrutinized more than 70 of these products, analyzing user reviews dating back to 2016. At least 1,500 of those reviews described products that exploded, caught fire, or malfunctioned in other hazardous ways. One customer told CNN that an AmazonBasics USB cable melted on an office chair and caused a house fire. Another described a surge protector that sprayed flames like a “blowtorch.”
How Many Products Are Dangerous?
It’s difficult to tell from those numbers alone how much Amazon may be at fault, if at all. Consumer products from other brands are also known to cause fire hazards from time to time, and oftentimes retailers have no relationship with the manufacturers who make the goods they sell.
What needs further investigation is whether there is a genuine flaw in the design or manufacturing of some Amazon products, and whether such a flaw is the result of a reckless corporate concern for ever-cheaper products.
The real tell that a defect may be at hand is in the ratio of reports claiming fire hazards. For one popular AmazonBasics surge protector, roughly 1.7% of its 2,100 or so reviews claimed the product spit flames and, in some cases, caused fires.
Amazon removed that product last year, but according to CNN, the company did not provide any notification to customers or an explanation as to why the popular item was taken down.
For what it’s worth, since CNN began investigating the trend, Amazon removed from sale several products containing user reviews that mentioned explosions or fire hazards. The retail giant told CNN it does this from time to time to pursue its own safety investigations.
When a company discovers one of their products is a safety risk, it is required to report the item to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) within 24 hours. The agency then determines whether a recall is necessary.
At least 8 AmazonBasics items dating back to 2012 have been reported independently to the CPSC. For its part, Amazon has never publicly acknowledged any safety issues with its products.
Holding Corporations Accountable
It’s too soon to tell whether a pervasive manufacturing flaw is responsible for this rash of fire hazards, but given the numbers involved it is probably a good idea to avoid AmazonBasics products for the time being.
Manufacturers have been known to cut corners so as to undercut the competition. When that happens, the savings — as well as the safety risks — are passed onto the consumer. But those savings are rarely worth the risk.
A parable can be seen in the construction sector, where for years developers stuffed buildings with toxic, cancer-causing asbestos because it was a cheap, readily available fire retardant. That lack of foresight gave us our current asbestos-infested infrastructure, along with some 12,000 asbestos-related deaths per year.
Rather than allowing corporations to profit off such short-term gains, we need to hold them accountable for the sake of current (and future) generations.