'Wild, wild west': No charges laid against 300 companies making false PPE claims
A PPE vending machine is seen at Eglinton subway station in Toronto, on Aug. 13, 2020. (Cole Burston / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
TORONTO -- Nearly 300 companies have been found to be making false claims about products related to COVID-19 but not one has yet been charged.
There are 292 entries in Health Canada's database of "illegal, false or misleading advertising of products claiming to mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19."
The list includes masks, shields and gloves, products claiming to be hand sanitizers and disinfectants, UV lights, and so-called natural health products claiming effectiveness against the novel coronavirus, including "medicinal mushrooms," vitamins, immune boosters, and essential oils.
There is even an "anti-dust and anti-fog hat" that claims it "effectively isolates saliva carrying coronavirus" that was being sold on Amazon.ca. Other platforms for the claims include company websites, Twitter, and Kijiji.
Health Canada, which regulates medical masks, N95 respirators, face shields, medical goggles, and medical gowns, lists the status for 126 of the 292 cases as ongoing and the remaining as resolved.
But the ministry says it has not recommended charges against any of the companies investigated.
In response to questions from CTVNews.ca, spokesperson Andre Gagnon wrote in an email:
"The primary objective of Health Canada's compliance and enforcement approach is to manage the risks to Canadians using the most appropriate level of intervention."
After an investigation, companies flagged as non-compliant are expected to "take timely and appropriate action to address any non-compliance with legislative and regulatory requirements."
Health Canada follows up to ensure corrective action, said Gagnon. In response to how many companies have been found guilty of illegal, false or misleading claims and what penalties have been enforced, Gagnon wrote:
"To date, voluntary compliance has been successfully achieved following the issuance of a regulatory letter by Health Canada, outlining the non-compliance identified and directing immediate modification or removal of the non-compliant advertising material. Where the corrective actions are found to be satisfactory, the incident is identified as 'resolved' on the website."
A number of enforcement actions are available, including on-site visits, recalls, public communications and product seizures. As well, Health Canada can refer charges to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC.
"The courts have the sole discretion to impose penalties. To date, there have been no referrals to the PPSC for the incidents listed on our website," said Gagnon.
'WILD, WILD WEST'
It's difficult for Canadians to spot the fakes in PPE, said Saif Altimimi, founder and CEO of MedyKits, a Brantford, Ont.-based distributer.
He has a pharmacist on staff who reads third-party testing of all medical-grade PPE the company sells, but that's not realistic for ordinary consumers, he says.
And even MedyKits, which began serving frontline workers and now ships directly to consumers, has unknowingly bought expired gloves after the expiration date was covered up.
He recommends consumers research the company they are buying from and ensure they have a medical device establishment licence, which is required to sell PPE in Canada.
Don't just assume what you see on store shelves is OK, either.
"Retailers are not immune. I've seen plenty of fakes in stores. The huge surge in demand means that supply is the wild, wild west. You have to do your homework."
Consumers also don't know what they should be paying for PPE, says Altimimi. His company sells 50 surgical masks for less than half what he sees them going for in stores.
PRICE GOUGING 'UNCANADIAN'
As of Oct. 1, Ontario has received 28,000 complaints about price gouging related to COVID-19, and more than 9,600 of those are about PPE, said Matteo Guinci, a spokesperson with the provincial Ministry of Government and Consumer Services. Reviews were completed for about one-third of the total complaints, and about 900 warranted referral to law enforcement.
Whether or not charges are laid is up to police, he said.
In the cases where higher prices weren't as "egregious," as those referred to police, said Guinci, ministry investigators contacted the business and, in some cases, issued verbal or written warnings.
"Our government has been clear – price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic is unacceptable and unCanadian," Guinci wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca.
But more serious than losing some cash, ineffective PPE raises the risk of transmission and could also expose users to unapproved ingredients.
That could become an even greater concern as Canada's daily case numbers now far surpass those of the virus's first wave. The country recorded 2,323 new cases Wednesday, compared to the spring peak of 1,795 on May 3.
RECALLS ON 108 SANITIZERS
Health Canada continues to add to a long list – now at 108 – of recalled hand sanitizers.
The recalls are for ingredients that aren't allowed in Canada or for improper labelling. Many of the sanitizers contain unacceptable grades of ethanol or denaturants that have not been reviewed for safety or efficacy. Denaturants taste bad and are added to ethanol to discourage ingestion, especially by children.
Two unauthorized denaturants that have been found in hand sanitizers sold in Canada are ethyl acetate, which with frequent use can cause dry skin, leading to irritation or cracking, and methanol, which can cause dermatitis, eye irritation, upper respiratory system irritation and headaches.
If you have a product listed in the recall, Health Canada recommends you stop using it and follow local guidelines for the disposal of chemicals and other hazardous waste, or return the product to your local pharmacy for proper disposal.
Consult your doctor if you have used recalled products and have health concerns.
Gagnon at Health Canada recommends that consumers buying any PPE "check if the labels contain pertinent information, in English or in French, such as name of the device, directions of use, expiry date and any special storage conditions (as applicable) to enable proper use by the users."