Oxy’s foreign executives come under scrutiny

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Oxy’s foreign executives come under scrutiny

An investigation into Reckitt Benckiser Korea, which produced a humidifier sterilizer that allegedly took the lives of scores of people, has now turned to the foreign executives and employees of the company.

Prosecutors announced Wednesday that as many as 10 former or current foreign employees of the manufacturer of Oxy-brand cleaning products will be summoned for questioning, including John Lee, former CEO at Reckitt Benckiser Korea and current CEO of Google Korea. Gaurav Jain, another former CEO of the company, may also be summoned.

Ulrich Hosterbach, the finance director of Reckitt Benckiser Korea since 2010, will also be summoned by prosecutors on Thursday, the first foreign employee to be summoned.

“It will be difficult to continue the investigation without questioning foreign employees who managed the manufacturing and sales of the Oxy sterilizer after Shin Hyun-woo,” a prosecution official said.

Shin, currently detained by the prosecution and facing charges of involuntary manslaughter and professional negligence, served as CEO of the company from the early 1990s to 2005.

Lee served as CEO of the company after Shin and until 2010, when the Oxy humidifier sterilizer product was selling at a rate of some 360,000 bottles per year and dominating the market with a near 60 percent market share.

Prosecutors will be trying to figure out if Lee was aware of the toxicity of polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), a compound used in the sterilizer. Lee is banned from leaving the country.

Jain, the CEO of the company from 2010 to 2012, allegedly exchanged emails with Seoul National University, which conducted safety tests on Oxy sterilizers, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors suspect Jain may have been involved in manipulating the tests and destroying evidence against the company.

Prosecutors suspect the company was warned of the toxicity of PHMG before its sterilizers went on sale.

A former senior researcher of the company told prosecutors that an SK Chemical expert warned him in 2000 that “PHMG’s inhalation toxicity has not been tested” and advised the company to conduct a test.

The senior researcher, currently detained by prosecutors, said he reported this to the company, but the company hushed it up.

Prosecutors summoned Tuesday two employees of Homeplus, a supermarket chain that sold sterilizers leading to the deaths of 15 people, according to the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, a civic group.

BY JANG HYUK-JIN, LEE HYUN-TAEK [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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