Getting to the bottom of thingsEfforts to bring to justice those responsible for hundreds of deaths caused by exposure to humidifier sterilizers picked up speed with the questioning of manufacturers and retailers. The former head of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, which produced the Oxy-brand sterilizer suspected of causing 177 deaths, was summoned for questioning. But whether prosecutors can uncover the truth behind the manufacturing and sales process remains questionable.
The prosecution asked Shin Hyun-woo, who headed the company at the time when it developed its Oxy Ssak Ssak New Humidifier Sterilizer, whether he knew about the hazardousness chemical component PHMG (polyhexamethylene guanidine). Shin claimed he did not. Prosecutors suspect the company tampered with a test report by Seoul National University and brushed aside email warnings from a German expert regarding the potential harm involved.
The key is to determine how deeply the British multinational company that merged with Oxy in 2001 was involved in the manufacturing and sale of the lethal product. Court documents showed Oxy referred to a British hospital for a second opinion, hinting at the headquarters’ role in the case. But the company that fully admitted to misleading Australian consumers kept out of the controversy in Korea by dumping accountability entirely on its Korean unit. Whether it was involved in the falsified report by a local research group also needs to be explained. The government, too, must answer for its negligent role.
The sterilizer was sold only in Korea. PHMG, which was originally developed to clean carpets, is categorized as an agricultural pesticide in the United States. How could local health authorities allow such toxic elements to go into an everyday product that humans inhale?
The licensing and supervisory offices at the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy must be thoroughly investigated.
The victims and families have suffered in agony for the last five years, without any apology or compensation. The prosecution probe is not enough. The National Assembly should also hold a hearing to separately investigate the case.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 28, Page 34