Walk into any store in the country and you’ll find empty shelves that would normally contain masks, gloves, bleach, pulse oximeters, and other weapons in a war against a virus. That’s because no store in the world can keep up with the demand for medical and cleaning equipment in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
So it makes sense that nervous shoppers have turned to Amazon in search of cheap supplies and fast delivery.
But are Amazon’s medical goods actually safe to use?
While these UV wands might cost $80 or more on Amazon (which is still suspiciously much lower than what a reputable UV light might cost), their photo-identical replicas can be bought from Alibaba for $10 to $20.
According to Alexander Magnin, founder of health science debunking site The Unwinder, these products are likely to fall short of their claims.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Magnin tells the Daily Dot. “A lot of folks are making these products with really cheap LED strips that are essentially blacklights.”
Magnin clarifies that in order for a UV light to have disinfecting ability, it needs to use a proper low-pressure mercury UV lamp at a specific wattage, and must be held close to the object they are disinfecting for a period of time. To determine these benchmarks, Magnin employed the expertise of a theoretical physicist.
Plenty of misinformation about UV lights circulates the internet, especially after President Donald Trump made remarks about exposing coronavius patients to “ultraviolet or just very powerful light.”
According to Trump, the light could potentially kill the virus in one minute—although UV light can only disinfect surfaces, and not patients’ bodies, according to doctors. Plus, the amount of time for a UV light to fully disinfect a surface varies according to its power.
Few of Amazon’s third-party UV disinfection sellers disclose that kind of precise information on their pages, and what they do include is dubious at best.
Most of the UV sanitizer wands on Amazon list nothing more than a wattage of two to three. Comparatively, a hospital using UV sterilization would rely on a wattage of 15 or 30 per lamp, as a 15-watt lamp can cover approximately 100 square feet at a time. Magnin reports that a sanitizer wand with two watts of LED output “would require you to hold the device over each square centimeter you want to disinfect for just under four minutes.”
It would take hours just to ensure your phone was clean.
It is difficult to verify a product’s sanitizing ability without providing the power of its UV-C light, the distance at which it must be held, and the period of time for which it must be powered, which is not disclosed on these product pages.
(UV-C refers to a specific spectrum of UV rays.)
The few at-home tests users have reported show these devices fall short of their advertised capability.
Additionally, the products on Amazon don’t list UV safety concerns on their pages. For example, any professional cleaner who relies on UV sterilization would know that some types of UV-C rays used for germicidal cleaning are extremely dangerous to the human body.
When a company installs these lights (which are designed safely) in hospitals, a professional ensures they do not expose operators to ultraviolet irradiation. Some types of UV-C light can burn the skin and irritate the eyes—they can even damage materials like plastic and rubber, which appear to encase many of the UV lights on Amazon.
If an Amazon product does not specify this kind of information, there is no way to know whether it is even safe to use.
“The average consumer goes to Amazon, trusts the product because it’s on Amazon, buys it, puts their car keys or mask inside of this thing, and it’s just not going to do anything,” Magnin warns. “People's judgment is clouded by faux science.”
Magnin himself only uses a UV disinfection tool made specifically for baby bottles because products for children are regulated with more scrutiny in the United States.
Even if a buyer were to find a real UV lamp on Amazon powerful enough to kill microbes, there is still no definitive scientific consensus on how UV light can be used in the fight against coronavirus.
Earlier this year, Columbia University’s David Brenner, a physicist at the Center for Radiological Research, called certain types of UV-C rays know as Far-UV-C a “game-changer” when it comes to sterilization (no UV sanitizing wand on Amazon specifies what type of UV-C it uses). And the president’s recent remarks about the potential of UV reignited interest among consumers looking for quick and cheap protection from the virus.
UV light does work on other coronaviruses and has been a cleaning tool since the late 1870s, but scientists continue to monitor its effects on the human body and its overall efficiacy.
Boeing has spent years testing a UV light that flashes inside unoccupied airplane bathrooms and has yet to roll it out with, uncertain of its safety and effectiveness. If a company like Boeing cannot determine that UV light will be effective against coronavirus in a way that does not harm human beings, it is audacious for a third-party seller to imply those kinds of claims about a product.
Complicating the shopping experience, many of the UV light devices on Amazon are lifted up by swarms of fake reviews. “You just sort of know it when you see it,” Magnin says of these reviews, pointing to issues like English language inaccuracies, many reviews going up at the same time very quickly, or too many images of the product.
“Amazon’s algorithm loves reviews that contain media, so fake reviewers will include a lot more. In reality, less than 1% of people leaving a review will attach media.”
The issue reaches far beyond UV sanitation, as more and more third-party sellers profit off the pandemic by selling masks and other types of equipment that may not actually protect people from coronavirus—and at worst, could even hurt people by giving them a false sense of security about their own relative safety.
Amazon recently came under fire for allowing products that claim to cure coronavirus to proliferate in its marketplace, which resulted in the U.S. Federal Trade Commission issuing 35 warnings to sellers promoting these kinds of claims. The company has also received backlash for price gouging cleaning products and exposing warehouse workers to the virus.
And in the constant game of whack-a-mole Amazon plays over its products, right now UV light sellers are winning.