Oxy manufacturer offering deals to victims

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Oxy manufacturer offering deals to victims

Reckitt Benckiser Korea, manufacturer of the popular Oxy line of cleaning products, has been furtively striking compensation deals with victims of the deadly humidifier sterilizers that took the lives of some 100 people, despite having remained silent on the scandal for five years.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea was formerly a Korean company called Oxy, but it merged with Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser in 2001, changing its name to Oxy Reckitt Benckiser.

The company changed its name again to Reckitt Benckiser Korea in 2014 - which critics see as an attempt to distance itself from the sterilizer scandal. Koreans know the company by its original name and its most famous brand, Oxy.

Reports of mysterious pulmonary illnesses across the nation date back to as early as 2006, and in 2011, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report linking the health problems with chemicals used in the humidifier sterilizers.

They noticed that many of the victims were people who stayed at home a lot - near humidifiers - such as pregnant women and infants.

Prosecutors say Oxy’s sterilizer affected the highest number of people because of its popularity.

They say 177 suffered from using Oxy’s humidifier sterilizers, of which 70 died.

As many as 27 victims and their families have withdrawn lawsuits after receiving compensation from the Oxy manufacturer, according to Barun Law, a law firm representing 50 victims.

“It looks like the company is hurrying [to conclude civil lawsuits] by offering compensation now, because if it receives criminal punishment from the authorities, it will have to pay the victims a higher price,” said a lawyer at Barun Law who wished to remain anonymous.

“For many of these victims, they have no other choice but to take these compensation deals because they are tired of waiting,” said Lim Heung-gyu, a department head at the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, a civic group that is working with victims in the scandal.

Tens of lawsuits suing humidifier sterilizer companies have been deadlocked for the past few years, as investigations by police and prosecution have been ongoing.

The daughter, son and wife of a 44-year-old man complained of having difficulty breathing since using Oxy’s humidifier sterilizer from 2009 to 2011, and have been registered as victims of the humidifier sterilizer by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The man told the JoongAng Ilbo that he filed a lawsuit against Reckitt Benckiser Korea. He was approached by an official of the company last June, who offered compensation in exchange for withdrawing the lawsuit. The man asked for 100 million won ($88,500), but the company offered half the amount. The man rejected the compensation’s offer.

According to insiders in legal circles, Reckitt Benckiser Korea has been paying victims from 10 million to a few hundred million won, depending on the seriousness of their injuries.

Prosecutors are investigating whether Reckitt Benckiser Korea attempted to cover up or manipulate data on deaths caused by its sterilizer.

Prosecutors found that it deleted a material safety data sheet submitted by SK Chemical, producer of the fatal PHMG (polyhexamethylene guanidine) chemical used in sterilizer products, including Oxy’s. PHMG was the cause of the poisoning.

SK Chemical’s data sheet contains information on safe usage and management of the chemical. It includes a clause that reads, “Do not eat, drink or inhale” PHMG because it is harmful to humans, according to prosecutors.

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

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