Oxy researchers are in hot water

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Oxy researchers are in hot water

Continuing a probe into Reckitt Benckiser Korea, the British manufacturer of a humidifier sterilizer that reportedly killed more than 100 people, prosecutors arrested a Seoul National University professor who allegedly received bribes from the manufacturer to produce research guaranteeing the safety of the company’s Oxy sterilizers.

After prosecutors established a special investigation team early this year to look into the fatal products, the Oxy manufacturer submitted reports to disprove government tests linking pulmonary illnesses and deaths to the inhalation of fatal chemicals in several brands of humidifier sterilizers.

Suspecting the reports were manipulated by university professors to favor Reckitt Benckiser Korea’s case, prosecutors Wednesday arrested a Seoul National University professor surnamed Cho and banned a Hoseo University professor surnamed Yoo from leaving the country. They also searched their houses and laboratories.

Cho had written reports for the Oxy manufacturer that stated “the causal relation between lung damage and humidifier sterilizers is unclear,” while Yoo conducted tests under artificial conditions to produce favorable results for Reckitt Benckiser Korea. He allegedly concealed results that proved harmful effects of the sterilizer products, according to the prosecution.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea paid 250 million won ($215,000) to Seoul National University and 100 million won to Hoseo University for the tests and reports. Prosecutors found that Cho and Yoo personally received tens of millions of won from the Oxy manufacturer. While the professors insisted they were consulting fees, prosecutors suspect they were bribes to produce reports favorable to the company.

The prosecution is considering charging Cho with accepting bribes and summoning Yoo for questioning.

Five years ago, the government first linked mysterious pulmonary illnesses and deaths to humidifier sterilizers from 2004. In investigations by state-run health institutes into 2015, 530 people were surveyed as possible victims of humidifier sanitizers that contained fatal chemicals like polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG). An additional 752 people have identified themselves as victims of humidifier sterilizers and are awaiting further government tests.

Reckitt Benckiser Korea’s Oxy brand reportedly took 103 lives, the largest among sterilizer manufacturers, according to a study by the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health. Oxy humidifier sterilizers used PHMG in its products from 2001.

A victims’ group left the country Wednesday to submit a lawsuit in the United Kingdom. The group is scheduled to speak with Reckitt Benckiser CEO Rakesh Kapoor in their visit.

Breaking the company’s five-year silence on the sterilizer scandal, Ata Safdar, CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, apologized to all the victims and their families on Monday.

“On behalf of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, I’d like to offer a sincere apology to all victims and their families who have suffered lung disease as a result of using our humidifier sterilizers,” Safdar said at the Conrad Hotel in western Seoul. Relatives of victims physically and verbally abused Safdar as he apologized.

Korea’s Oxy merged with Reckitt Benckiser in 2001. Britain’s Reckitt Benckiser reportedly holds 100 percent of shares in Reckitt Benckiser Korea.

BY SEO BOK-HYEON [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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