The beauty of being a consumer is that all you have to do is decide what you want to buy, and when you find it for the price you want, it’s yours. Those responsible for manufacturing, distributing and selling what consumers buy can worry about the headaches, right? This is especially the case with items that require special care or regulation in order to be brought to market. Case in point—hazardous materials (hazmat).

Hazmat on Amazon is a stealth concept. Most sellers may not even be aware that they can or are selling hazardous materials on the marketplace, much less do consumers realize they can or do buy hazardous materials from the site. The reality is that Amazon is in a transitional period with how it handles the recognition, regulation, and shipping of hazmat. The retailer has already violated FAA regulations due to inaccurate shipping of hazmat, thanks in part to its partially undefined hazmat policies. Fact is, some sellers who do sell hazmat on Amazon are dealing with the consequences of the retailer’s shaky policies. To help with the confusion, Amazon has established the Hazmat Pilot Program to help certify users who want to sell hazmat. But even that is currently on hold.

So where does Amazon stand with hazardous materials? Let’s break down the facts…

AMAZON AND HAZARDOUS MATERIALS

You may be surprised to learn that Amazon.com classifies numerous household products as hazmat, just like dangerous chemicals, explosives, or poisons. Hazmat laws already restrict carriers like UPS, FedEx, and even the USPS from shipping anything defined as hazmat by air. Amazon, too, has to deal with these restrictions which impact even things like baby lotion.

These issues become important for sellers when things that appear to be utterly harmless get banned—even after a long history of sales on Amazon.com. Sellers have had widely variant experiences with the hazmat issue, and there is some confusion in online forums and on discussion boards surrounding hazmat items. If you are an Amazon seller, it pays to know the subject well, even if you think your products don't necessarily qualify.

HOW DOES AMAZON DEFINE HAZARDOUS MATERIALS?

Amazon.com has no strict definition of its own when it comes to hazardous materials. Instead, it refers to the Federal Hazardous Materials Transportation Law to discuss what hazardous materials are in general terms, and then lists a large number of items which may be hazardous based on the law. Federal law defines hazardous material as follows:

“[A] substance or material that the Secretary of Transportation has determined is capable of posing an unreasonable risk to health, safety, and property when transported in commerce, and has designated as hazardous under section 5103 of (49 U.S.C. 5103). The term includes hazardous substances, hazardous wastes, marine pollutants, elevated temperature materials, materials designated as hazardous in the Hazardous Materials Table (see 49 CFR 172.101), and materials that meet the defining criteria for hazard classes and divisions in part 173 of 49 CFR.”

Beyond pointing sellers to the federal law, Amazon is fairly vague about what materials might be hazardous. They state that virtually any product “that is or contains a liquid, powder, or paste”might potentially be classified as a hazardous material. They also point out that cleaning products, cosmetic and beauty products, and paint are likely to be hazmat. Finally, Amazon provides this fairly extensive table of items which may possibly be hazmat. They clarify that the final disposition of any product will hinge upon the particular product's ingredients.

Amazon recommends that sellers determine for themselves whether products are hazmat before attempting to sell them at all. The site suggests that sellers take the following steps to make the determination about hazmat status:

  • Ask the product's manufacturer if the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or the USPS regulate the product. If it is, find out what hazard class it is; this will impact whether or not Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) will handle it.
  • Each product has a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that can provide regulatory information. If the product's manufacturer doesn't know whether or not the product is hazmat, the MSDS might tell you.
  • If any of these things about the product are true, it is likely that it is hazmat (although even if none of these things is true, you can't be sure it isn't):
  • The product is in an aerosol can
  • The product has a flashpoint—the temperature at which it can ignite in air—below 200°F (check the MSDS)
  • The product is any sort of compressed gas
  • The product has warning labels such as “danger,” “combustible,” “corrosive,” “explosive,” “flammable,” “hazardous,” or “ORM-D.”

WHICH ITEMS THAT ARE DEFINED AS HAZARDOUS MATERIALS CAN BE SOLD ON AMAZON?

Right now, FBA accepts only a limited number of hazardous materials for shipment. Those include:

  • Refrigerators
  • Automobile shocks and struts
  • Anything containing magnetized materials (these must be properly labeled and packaged)
  • Dental whitening strips
  • Any products containing small lithium-ion or lithium-metal batteries (these must be properly labeled and packaged). See the requirements for lithium ion and lithium metal batteries help section for sellers.

No other products classified as hazardous are currently accepted by FBA.

There are many items that are specifically prohibited from being sold through FBA. View a list of those items here. Most of them are intuitive, such as firearms, explosives, drugs, live animals, tobacco products, alcohol, anything requiring a prescription, and anything prohibited by the FDA.

THE AMAZON HAZMAT PILOT PROGRAM AND SELLER REACTIONS

Although information about it is limited, Amazon.com now has a Hazmat Pilot Program for a select number of sellers. As of April 2014 the program is allegedly closed to new participants, but for those who are approved, ORM-D products in the hazardous material classes 2.1, 2.2, 3, 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, and 8 are fair game in the marketplace. Amazon will allow the sellers approved through this program to sell these products so long as they are properly labeled and cleared. Amazon processes these kinds of orders through warehouses that house only hazmat items, and partnered shipping is not available for these products. There are reportedly other, more detailed rules for participants, but at the time of this writing they could not be found for this report.

Some sellers are concerned that the pilot program is already closed to new participants. They feel that the sellers who are participating may be receiving preferential treatment, and that the participation criteria are unclear.

The biggest general complaint surrounding hazmat items that sellers seem to have involves inconsistent review and regulation. The fact that items that have been listed in the past can be banned is understandably upsetting to sellers. Amazon.com has gradually been reviewing items in the catalog to ensure compliance with hazmat regulations, and it is a massive task. This means that slowly but surely certain items are coming under review and being flagged, but when this finally happens, it might be a surprise to the sellers.

Sellers have reported that at times when they send new products to FBA, their items are held up under review for the hazmat issue. Here are some of the review messages. There is typically no set review time or given reason for hazmat review of products. Sellers report that review of the same or similar items from one seller to another is inconsistent.

Still others are annoyed that Amazon's system doesn't automatically preclude placement of orders in violation of Amazon’s hazmat policy; the issue is that rather than letting the placement go through and then blocking the items while they await manual review, the system should “catch” the product. Even so, it isn't difficult to understand why Amazon is being cautious with hazmat. It has recently paid a $91,000 penalty for a civil violation issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a single air shipment of liquid adhesive.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Amazon seems to be taking steps to grant sellers the opportunity to safely sell hazmat, but the success of those policies have yet to come to fruition. The need to ensure compliance with federal law—not to mention avoid dangerous incidents—while managing seller satisfaction, are the primary obstacles for the marketplace . The Hazmat Pilot Program may be the solution for Amazon, particularly if it eventually allows for even-handed regulation of hazmat sales.