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Daily News Blog

15
Jun

DOJ Continues Pesticide Crackdown, with Millions in Fines for Illegal Claims of Protection from Covid

(Beyond Pesticides, June 15, 2022) The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is cracking down on companies and individuals that took advantage of Americans desire for antimicrobial products that would work against coronavirus during the height of the Covid pandemic. Late last week, a New Jersey man pled guilty to selling nearly $3 million worth of unregistered pesticides he claimed were approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to combat the coronavirus. And yesterday, U.S. Attorney Office for the Southern District of New York announced a record $1.5 million settlement with TZUMI Innovations LLC for illegal distributing millions of products claiming to have antimicrobial properties, while specifically targeting low-income customers.

The case in New Jersey centers around chemist Paul Andrecola, 63, who established an elaborate scheme to sell a product he named “GCLEAN.” Mr. Andrecola used the pesticide registration numbers of a different company on his product, and forged documents to support his advertised claim that his product was “EPA approved to kill coronavirus.” From March 2020 to May 2021, Mr. Andrecola made over 150 sales, making a profit of more than $2.7 million. He specifically defrauded a number of government agencies, including a Delaware police department, Virginia fire department, Georgia medical clinic, school in Wisconsin, and janitorial supply company in New Work. He also targeted U.S. government agencies, including the U.S. Marshal’s Service, Moody Air Force Base, the National Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mr. Andrecola is facing a significant sentence. Each count of illegal pesticide sales can carry a one year prison sentence and fine up to $25,000. Wire fraud, which he is also accused of committing, carries a maximum 20 year prison sentence, and making false claims against the United States can result in up to five years in prison. Both of the aforementioned crimes also include fines of $250,000, or twice the profits he received, or twice the loss the victims suffered. Mr. Andrecola took a plea agreement to forfeit $2.74 million. He is scheduled for sentencing in October.

“Andrecola not only cheated dozens of people out of millions of dollars, but also endangered the health of those who relied on his fraudulent virucidal products,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Department of Justice is committed to prosecuting such crimes to the fullest extent possible.”

TZUMI Innovations recently settled with the Southern District of New York for $1.5 million after selling range of products called “Wipe Out!” that made antimicrobial pesticide claims without going through EPA registration. TZUMI products made claims such as “KILLS GERMS FAST*” and on the back in part “To decrease bacteria on the skin that could cause disease”; “Cleans and sanitizes”; “KILLS 99.9% OF GERMS*”;“*Escherichia Coli (E. coli), Staphylococcus Aureus (Staph), Candida Albicans”; and “Use it Anytime, Anywhere.” TZUMI sold these products to retailers, who subsequently sold them alongside registered antimicrobials making similar claims. According the U.S. Attorney’s, TZUMI explicitly stated that their products were intended to be sold to “lower income level customers.”

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “At the height of the pandemic, Tzumi misled consumers and retailers and exposed the public to pesticide products that had not been found by EPA to be safe and effective. It compounded matters by targeting low-income customers, who face disproportionate environmental burdens. Today’s settlement ensures that Tzumi pays the price for its misconduct.  We will continue to pursue justice in environmental enforcement matters.”

In addition to the payment, under the settlement TZUMI is required to develop a campaign to inform retailers and the public about the appropriate uses for their products. While the settlement requires TZUMI not distribute or sell unregistered pesticide products in the future, the settlement is currently waiting for public comment and court approval.

In the meantime, just as in the story of illegal pesticide smuggling Beyond Pesticides reported on yesterday, the products in question are still easily available for purchase online. “Wipe Out!” products listed by TZUMI are currently available through WalMart online, advertised as “Antibacterial Wipes.” “GCLEAN” products were quickly found for sale on a website called AOE.net.  

As DOJ continues to prosecute those that take advantage of the public to sell toxic pesticides, it is critical that the Department take action regarding continued online sales.

During public health emergencies involving infectious diseases, consumers must take care to scrutinize practices and products very carefully so that hazards presented by the crisis are not elevated because of the unnecessary threat introduced with toxic chemical use. While many of the products registered by EPA pose significant hazards, those without any level of oversight present an even greater concern for public health.

For information about how you can stay safe, and avoid hazardous chemical use in your cleaning routine, see Beyond Pesticides fact sheet Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 (coronavirus) without Toxic Sanitizers and Disinfectants. And for more information see Beyond Pesticides program page on Disinfectants and Sanitizers.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source:  U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York press release, U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of New Jersey press release

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