Detroit mom whose son died after consuming chemical bought online pushes for change

Detroit resident Tonia Jones, the mother of Anthony Jones, shown here in a school photo, says the 17-year-old died after consuming sodium nitrite he purchased online.  (Tonia Jones/Provided to CBC News - image credit)
Detroit resident Tonia Jones, the mother of Anthony Jones, shown here in a school photo, says the 17-year-old died after consuming sodium nitrite he purchased online. (Tonia Jones/Provided to CBC News - image credit)

WARNING: This article contains details about suicide. 

A Detroit woman is warning others after her teenage son died from consuming a known dangerous and lethal chemical — one she says he bought online from a site with ties to a Greater Toronto Area man who's now facing charges.

"What me and my family has been through this past year and a half is — it's just too much," said Tonia Jones, who says her son Anthony died after consuming sodium nitrite a year and a half ago.

TJ Dhir/CBC News
TJ Dhir/CBC News

Jones said the 17-year-old was a quiet and kind soul who loved junk food, reading and anime. Like many teens, she said, he struggled during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Jones said she was working on getting him help for suicidal thoughts, though he hadn't acted on them before.

Late one night, Jones said, Anthony burst into her room, telling her he "took something" and needed to go to the emergency room.

Jones said she called 911 and Anthony kept screaming, "I want to live, I want to live."

Doctors called poison control, but it was too late, she said. Within 3½ hours, Anthony was dead.

Sodium nitrite is a legal but potentially lethal chemical that can cause death if taken in large amounts.

Peel Regional Police in Ontario recently arrested a man suspected of selling the substance online through three companies.

Kenneth Law, 57, was arrested last week and charged with two counts of aiding or counselling suicide related to the alleged sale of sodium nitrite. He is being held in custody pending his bail hearing Tuesday.

Jones said she barely sleeps and is getting through one day at a time with the support of her family. She has turned to writing poetry and tries to remember the good times with her son.

The Times/News Licensing
The Times/News Licensing

Jones said she wants more people to see the warning signs.

"Just look out," she said. "Watch warning signs and try to get the person help."

Toronto-area man in custody

Peel police allege some 1,200 packages sent from companies associated with Law were shipped to more than 40 countries. It's unknown how many contained sodium nitrite.

None of the charges have been proven in court.

TJ Dhir/CBC News
TJ Dhir/CBC News

The charges against Law were laid follow a month-long investigation that began on March 31, after a sudden death in which the victim was suspected of consuming sodium nitrite, police said. The substance was believed to have been purchased by an online company owned by Law.

Sodium nitrite is a salt compound or food additive that is commonly used to cure meats. But the white, crystalline substance can be lethal when ingested in high concentrations, according to toxicology experts.

A Times of London investigation found people in the United Kingdom had received the potentially lethal, but legal, substance from packages traced to the GTA.

Reached by phone at the time, Law told CBC News the allegations were false.

More awareness needed of lethal chemical's risk: Lawyer

Naomi Leeds, an associate at C.A. Goldberg Law in New York City, is representing Jones.

"There's not that much information or knowledge about this poison out there, and that's part of this whole effort is trying to bring awareness to what this is, that sodium nitrite is a suicide chemical, that companies can't be shipping this industrial-grade chemical to households," Leeds said.

She said the chemical can be shipped right from a website to a doorstep with no restriction, requirement for a signature upon receipt, or evidence of using it for business purposes.

"It compounds [Jones's] harms, however, many fold, every time she learns how preventable this was and how many families were affected the same way she was."

Leeds said the family is seeking criminal prosecution for Anthony's death. The lawyer also believes there will soon be charges relating to the international sales of sodium nitrite and the sales to minors.

Jones said access to sodium nitrite is "horrific" and ready access to the chemical needs to stop.

"If they [those suspected of dying from sodium nitrite] didn't have access to it, maybe that extra day … something could have been brought into their lives to make them have a change of heart, you know?"

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help: