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Oxy’s Korea head blames gov’t failures

He said deaths would not have happened if checks had been better

Aug 29,2019
Oxy-Reckitt Benckiser’s Korea head Park Dong-suk, third from left, attends a public hearing held at Seoul City Hall in central Seoul on Wednesday. [YONHAP]
Park Dong-suk, Oxy-Reckitt Benckiser’s Korea head, on Wednesday said that insufficient government monitoring and safety checks were to blame for the 2011 humidifier sterilizer crisis that is thought to have led to hundreds of deaths.

Park’s comment came during a two-day public hearing organized by the Special Investigation Commission on Humidifier Disinfectants & 4-16 Sewol Ferry Disasters, a state-funded agency to investigate both disasters.

This was the first hearing on humidifier disinfectants in eight years since 2011, when the state-owned Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first raised questions on the product’s safety and its possible link to an abnormal outbreak of respiratory disease among pregnant women.

Sold between 1994 and 2011, humidifier sterilizers are estimated to have been used by 6,509 consumers and resulted in possibly thousands of fatalities, according to Ministry of Environment estimates. Oxy was the No. 1 leader in the product segment and is believed to be responsible for distributing 55 percent of the deadly disinfectors.

“I believe the crisis wouldn’t have happened if the government had been more thorough in its supervision or monitoring of the product — in 1994 when SK Chemicals first developed and distributed humidifier sterilizers and when Oxy released a similar product in 1996,” Park said.
Park was appointed to head the British company’s Korean unit in late 2016.

He added that “the hardship of the victims would have been significantly smaller” if government offices and other disinfectant makers had taken on more responsibility to compensate victims in 2016 when Oxy first acknowledged its role in the incident.

On Wednesday, the commission questioned whether Oxy’s global headquarters had participated in the product’s development process. It also criticized the fact that Oxy’s foreign executives that were serving in Korea at the time did not appear at the Wednesday hearing.

A former employee at LG Household & Health Care also took to the stand. When the commission remarked that LG only ran tests on the disinfectant’s sterilizing effect and not its safety, the employee acknowledged there were no tests but the release was decided after reviewing relevant documents.

On Tuesday, SK Chemicals and Aekyung were called to speak.

Former SK Chemicals Vice Chairman Chey Chang-won and Aekyung Industrials CEO and vice chair Chae Dong-seok both bowed in apology at the Tuesday session. This was the two companies’ first official apologies to the victims and families. Both Chey and Chae are members of the respective conglomerate owner families.

But both failed to give statements on compensation plans or why the safety verifications were flawed. The commission also accused the two companies of having discussed ways to discard proof and prevent the government from establishing a special set of laws this year that obligates compensation to victims.

Unlike Oxy, SK and Aekyung officials were not indicted after a 2016 prosecutor’s probe. At the time, only humidifier disinfectants containing the hazardous chemical polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG) were ruled as dangerous, putting Oxy, Lotte Mart and Homeplus executives behind bars.

But a re-investigation last year brought them back into the spotlight after it was revealed that the chemicals chloromethylisothiazolinone (CMIT) and methylisothiazolinone (MIT) — used in SK and Aekyung sterilizers — were hazardous as well. On July 23, 34 people including current and former employees were indicted.

It was also revealed at Wednesday’s hearing that the Korean Army had purchased 2,416 humidifier disinfectors between 2000 and 2011. This was three times larger than what the committee had first revealed earlier this month, based on accounts of possible victims that are said to have suffered from respiratory diseases since starting their mandatory military service.

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]


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