The price of tragedy

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The price of tragedy

A Seoul court on Friday sentenced Shin Hyun-woo, former CEO of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, to seven years in prison for manufacturing and selling toxic humidifier sterilizers that killed and sickened hundreds of people. The same verdict went to a former CEO of Cefu, formerly Butterfly Effect, for selling a similar product. They avoided punishment for fraud — intentionally deceiving consumers about the hazards of using their products — but received the maximum legal punishment for professional negligence.

The bench argued the producers had not fully tested the safety of the chemical compounds and sold the product with labels suggesting sterilizers in humidifiers were safe for children. Prosecutors seeking 20-year jail terms argued that 95 percent of the deaths could have been avoided if not for the misleading labels. The ruling was the first court determination after mysterious deaths were linked to humidifier sterilizers five and a half years ago and 23 years since the products first hit shop shelves.

The humidifier sterilizers were dubbed as a slow killer as they gradually poisoned their users with every breath they took. In between the introduction of the product by Yukong, formerly SK Chemical, in 2004 and its official ban in 2011, thousands of brands of sterilizers were made and sold by 20 companies. The death toll reached 140, mostly killing pregnant women and minors

A mother complained that she had slowly killed her child by keeping the humidifier on 12 hours a day because her three-year-old had a cough.

The collective ignorance of our society including companies, the government, hospitals and households led to this fatal tragedy. The damage and pain is ongoing. Confirmed victims number 4,893, and related deaths exceed 1,000. A joint public-private committee investigating lung impairments estimate potential victims at 2.27 million. From this year, the government is employing a punitive damage rule, demanding producers of defective products pay compensation that is triple the amount of damages. Such punitive actions should be upped: consumers in advanced countries can claim compensation of up to 10 times the damages.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 7, Page 26
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