Oxy probed over humidifier death disclosures

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Oxy probed over humidifier death disclosures

Prosecutors summoned a human resources manager at Reckitt Benckiser Korea on Tuesday to ask questions about whether the company tried to hide or manipulate data on deaths caused by its humidifier sterilizer five years ago.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea is a British-controlled company with the popular Korean cleaning supplies manufacturer Oxy.

According to the Ministry of Environment’s Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI), of the 143 people who allegedly died from using a humidifier sterilizer that included fatal chemicals including PHMG (polyhexamethylene guanidine), 95 deaths were directly caused by the sterilizers as of 2015. An additional 750 people have been reported to the government as suffering effects from the sterilizer and are awaiting tests.

But the civic group Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health has claimed that deaths caused by Oxy’s disinfectants alone were as high as 103, the largest among sterilizer manufacturers. Aekyung caused the second-largest with 28 and Lotte Mart the third with 22, followed by Homeplus’s 15, according to the civic organization.

Lotte Mart’s CEO apologized to the public Monday and offered plans for compensation to the victims. It was the first company involved in the humidifier sterilizer deaths to do so. Aekyung has not yet made a public apology.

“I am sad for what has happened to the victims and the families,” Shekhar Rapaka, then the president of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, said in 2013. “But we thought the products were safe at the time of their sale.”

Reckitt Benckiser Korea has remained silent on the issue since then.

It even changed its name following the scandal. Prior to 2014, Reckitt Benckiser Korea was known in Korea as Oxy Reckitt Benckiser. In 2014, it took out Oxy from its name, for which it is better known among Koreans, including the victims of the humidifier sterilizers. Critics saw the move as an attempt to cover up its past.

Reports on mysterious illnesses and deaths date back to as early as 2006, but the issue gained massive media attention in 2011, when the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report linking the health problems with chemicals used in humidifier sterilizers.

Korea’s Oxy merged with Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser in 2001.

“Operations of Reckitt Benckiser Korea are known to be run by its London headquarters,” said Lee Cheol-hee, prosecutor of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. “The man summoned today is a Korean official who works at the branch office.”

While Reckitt Benckiser’s headquarters in London said requests for information should be made directly to Reckitt Benckiser’s branch office in Korea, phone calls to Reckitt Benckiser Korea on Tuesday went unanswered. The prosecution started an investigative unit on Reckitt Benckiser Korea in January, suspecting that the company may have manipulated or hidden evidence to cover up the fact that its humidifier sterilizer products caused deaths.

When the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Korean CDC issued reports on tests of PHMG and other fatal chemicals included in the humidifier sterilizers, Reckitt Benckiser Korea conducted its own tests with Seoul National University and Hoseo University in an attempt to disprove the government’s tests.

Using its own tests, Reckitt Benckiser Korea submitted reports to the prosecution showing that the sterilizer products from Reckitt Benckiser Korea were not harmful.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea is also suspected of having deleted customers’ posts on its website complaining about side effects from its sterilizer products since 2001.

Many alleged victims are awaiting the prosecutors’ investigation into Reckitt Benckiser Korea, including Ahn Seong-woo, a 39-year-old whose wife and daughter died in 2011 from inhaling steam from a humidifier.

“I don’t know why it is so difficult to just get one word of apology,” Ahn said. On Tuesday, he stood in front of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office for hours with a protest sign.

BY JANG HYUK-JIN, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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