A medical examiner report revealed this week that Empire actress Lindsey Pearlman died by suicide in February from sodium nitrite poisoning—and she’s not alone. Her death is part of an alarming trend that’s left officials scrambling and family members of victims suing Amazon for selling the substance, a common food preservative that can have fatal consequences when ingested in large amounts.
Pearlman was found dead in her car on Feb. 13, authorities said, after a five-day search for the actress, who appeared on TV shows like Chicago Justice and General Hospital. While family member’s alluded to her death as a suicide at the time, a medical examiner report obtained by People magazine this week specified that Pearlman died from sodium nitrite poisoning. She was just 43.
Pearlman’s death comes as authorities in the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom struggle to keep sodium nitrite out of the hands of vulnerable people. Poison centers across the U.S. have received a frightening number of reports of people poisoning themselves by consuming nitrites and nitrates. In 2021, centers saw a 166 percent increase in fatalities compared to 2018 as sodium nitrate became increasingly accessible online. Some websites have even discussed how the compound can be used as a suicide method—outraging victims’ families.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741
Stateside, seven members of Congress wrote an open letter to Amazon the same month as Pearlman’s death, pleading with the company to restrict the sale of sodium nitrite to individuals. The letter referenced the “ease and swiftness” with which vulnerable people can buy the compound as a “grave concern,” The New York Times reported.
Sodium nitrite was available on Amazon’s website Tuesday and could be delivered in as little as three days. It’s this ease of access that has doctors and authorities worried.
Manufactured to be a synthetic curing salt that preserves meat, sodium nitrite has a practical use—just not one for most individuals, Dr. Kyle Pires, a resident emergency room physician at Yale University Hospital, wrote in the journal Clinical Toxicology last year.
Pires wrote that he treated a 28-year-old woman who died from sodium nitrite poisoning just days after she purchased it on Amazon.
Pires suggested all hospitals carry doses of an antidote, methylene blue, that can prevent death if administered early.
“There’s an argument that it’s a slippery slope to restrict sales of something that is legal just because some people are using it to kill themselves,” Dr. Pires told The New York Times in February. But the doctor added that just a small number of hobbyists use the chemical to cure meat, while a growing number of young people are using it to take their own life.
“A small number of hobbyists using this chemical to cure meat at home versus these growing numbers of young people, including teenagers, using it to kill themselves,” Pires said. “For me, it’s an easy calculation.”
Just how many people have died from sodium nitrite is unknown in the United States, but multiple doctors, like Pires, report it’s a growing method of suicide. Elsewhere, the U.K.'s Department of Health and Social Care says it has worked to limit the chemical’s sale to individuals.
Metalchem, a British vendor of the chemical, stopped selling the compound to the public in 2020 after its chief executive, Mike Keay, realized the shocking number of people who were using it to commit suicide, he told The Daily Beast in an email Tuesday. He tried to inform other European sellers about its dangers and many agreed to halt sales, too, but Britons are still able to get their hands on the chemical by ordering from abroad.
“I was horrified,” Keay said. “We stopped selling to all private individuals, as buyers will simply lie as to why they want it.”
Keay says his company now only sells the chemical after it has been mixed and can no longer be used easily for consumption. Instead, he says, it can still be used for meat curing, as well as to promote coral growth in marine aquariums.
In Ontario, Canada, sodium nitrite was blamed for the suicides of 23 people in 2019 and 2020, according to a study released last year.
Amazon is being sued by a mother who lost her 27-year-old son to sodium nitrite last year. The company did not answer questions posed by The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Lawyers for the grieving mother, Ruth Scott, have called sodium nitrite “suicide powder.” Her lawsuit—which claims Amazon is the No. 1 vendor of the compound for suicides—seeks damages from Amazon for “profiting off vulnerable people dying by suicide.”
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