American dad fights to restrict sodium nitrite sales worldwide after death of 17-year-old son

After the sudden death of his 17-year-old son, a Colorado father is pushing for Canada to be a part of proposed worldwide restrictions on the sale of a substance that is connected to the deaths of dozens of potentially vulnerable people across Canada.

The calls by Bruce Brown after the death of his son Bennett are echoing some of the recommendations by Canadian coroners who dealt with several deaths by sodium nitrite, a chemical used in curing meats that is recommended on a pro-suicide website and has been pushed, police allege, by Mississauga’s Kenneth Law.

“There’s nothing that equates to the level of grief of losing a child. It’s just the worst thing that could ever happen,” Brown said in an interview, saying Bennett’s family and friends are mourning the loss of a promising athlete with a great sense of humour.

“Bennett’s family and friends all feel this loss. It was $13.99 for the seller of sodium nitrite — they might have profited a few bucks. But me, and many other families have experienced this great loss you couldn’t put a price on,” said Brown.

Bennett loved soccer and basketball and had big plans when he left home for college last year, his dad recalled.

“He was knocking it out of the park academically, he was taking Japanese, which is a tough course,” Brown said.

But the 17-year-old was sidelined by a concussion, returned home and became withdrawn, Brown said. At some point, he started reading posts on a pro-suicide website that CTV News Toronto is not naming, and ordered a product online from a fishing retailer.

“When we became aware from Bennett he had taken the substance and he didn’t want to die, we couldn’t act fast enough to save him,” Brown said.

Bennett died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital on Nov. 8, 2022, he said. The cause of death listed on his death certificate is sodium nitrite toxicity.

Bennett Brown died on his way to hospital on Nov. 8, 2022 after he ingested sodium nitrite that he purchased online. (Supplied)

Sodium nitrite is the same substance police say was among the 1,200 packages sent out by Kenneth Law to 40 countries. The Mississauga man is charged with aiding and abetting suicide in two deaths in Peel Region in Ontario, though he has said he is not responsible for how people use his products.

The number of deaths that CTV News has seen with evidence connecting them to Law’s products is now 12, including 20-year-old Noelle Ramirez from Colorado, 17-year-old Anthony Jones from Michigan, 23-year-old Neha Raju, 41-year-old Gary Cooper, and 22-year-old Tom Parfett from the U.K.

Bennett’s death is not connected to Kenneth Law, who was not the only seller. Coroners across Canada have told CTV News that at least 51 deaths since 2020 involved sodium nitrite.

Among those are three cases from Quebec, detailed in reports provided to CTV News. In one case involving a 39-year-old man from Montreal, one coroner recommended to restrict online orders of the substance.

In another case of a 30-year-old man, the coroner recommended that the CRTC, which regulates the airwaves in Canada, study a mechanism to block access to the pro-suicide website, which has been done in several other countries.

Coroners across Canada have told CTV News that at least 51 deaths since 2020 involved sodium nitrite.

The CRTC has said they have no jurisdiction over online content, which is one of the issues that Canada’s government is wrestling with as it seeks to regulate online harms.

And Health Canada, which would regulate the sale of sodium nitrite, said it has published guidance for health-care professionals to treat the poisoning, but did not restrict the substance because it has industrial uses, including to preserve food.

“Health Canada has assessed the common uses of sodium nitrite and found that when used as intended, it does not pose a risk to human health,” the agency said in a statement.

Several online retailers have faced lawsuits in the U.S. for selling sodium nitrite, often paired with other means of suicide in automated recommendations.

In Brown’s case, he ordered it but did not pay right away — he received automated emails reminding him to complete his ultimately deadly order, his father said.

When CTV News looked, the retailer in Bennett’s case still lists the product on its website, but it is out of stock.

Brown said it’s important to act now in part because of rising rates of contemplation of suicide in the U.S. Peel Police also reported a 10 per cent rise in welfare checks related to suicide or attempted suicide since last year.

In New York and California , legislators are considering bills to regulate the sale of sodium nitrite. Colorado may have a bill introduced in the next session. The bills are largely limited to high-potency sodium nitrite. Law, for example, was selling a product that said on its packaging it was 99 per cent pure.

In the U.K., sodium nitrite is already a reportable substance, which means authorities must be alerted to any suspicious transactions involving the substance.

The substance should join others that are restricted for public health, to stop any other deaths like Bennett’s, Brown said.

“You can’t buy cyanide at your local hardware store,” Brown said. 

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