Court awards first damages in humidifier sterilizer suit

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Court awards first damages in humidifier sterilizer suit

Seoul Central District Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of 11 victims of toxic humidifier sterilizers, ordering one manufacturer to compensate victims or their families a total of 540 million won ($461,590).

It was the first in a number of lawsuits against different manufacturers. The manufacturer who lost was Cefu, which had a relatively low market share compared to market leader Oxy Reckitt Benckiser. The 11-month old daughter of Cefu’s CEO was reportedly one of the casualties.

“The judgment was reached because the victims’ use of humidifier sterilizers likely caused the pulmonary illnesses and deaths of the victims,” the court said.

The court dismissed a case that victims filed against the Korean government, citing a “lack of evidence against the state for its alleged failure to manage and regulate humidifier sterilizers on the market.”

More than 5,000 people are registered as victims of sterilizer products with the state-led Korea Environmental Industry & Technology Institute, according to the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, a civic group. Of them, 1,055 died from illnesses allegedly caused by the sterilizers.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked pulmonary illnesses and deaths to humidifier sterilizers in 2011, and the government conducted four epidemiological tests starting from 2013. The results of a third and fourth round of tests are yet to be released.

People started contracting pulmonary illnesses and other sickness after they started putting sterilizers in the water in humidifiers. The humidifiers worked fine with regular water, but consumers believed that by adding sterilizers to the water they could prevent mold buildup.

More than a dozen companies started producing humidifier sterilizers after they saw how well Oxy Reckitt Benckiser fared in 2005 with its humidifier sterilizer. The companies included Cefu, formerly known as Butterfly Effect, Lotte Shopping, Homeplus, Aekyung and Emart. They failed to test the toxicity of certain humidifier sterilizer compounds, like polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), which are fatal to humans when inhaled.

Because of its large market share, the Oxy-brand sterilizer sickened the largest number of people - 181 people fell ill after using Oxy’s humidifier sterilizer, of whom 73 died, according to prosecutors.

Oxy Reckitt Benckiser and others reached compensation agreements with the victims directly.

Cefu’s CEO Oh Yoo-jin is alleged to have arbitrarily mixed water and PGH, also known as oligo (2-(2-ethoxy)ethoxyethyl) guanidinium chloride, to create the Cefu-brand humidifier sterilizer in 2008, without testing the toxicity of the PGH. Cefu sterilizer killed 14 and sickened 13 more, according to prosecutors. The CEO’s daughter is reported to have also died from using Cefu-brand humidifier sterilizer, though Oh reportedly has not registered his daughter as a victim. Oh was indicted and detained in September on charges of professional negligence.

Cefu will pay each victim from 10 million to 100 million won.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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