Ex-Aekyung CEO gets prison term

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Ex-Aekyung CEO gets prison term

A former chief of Aekyung Industrial, one of the local producers of deadly humidifier sterilizers in the early 2000s, was sentenced Friday to two and a half years in prison for covering up toxicity-related data on the company’s disinfectant products.

The Seoul Central District Court handed out the jail term to Ko Kwang-hyun, former CEO of Aekyung Industrial, in the first conviction among 34 suspects indicted last month after prosecutors wrapped up an eight-month reinvestigation into one of the nation’s worst scandals involving consumer products.

Ko was one of 34 suspects indicted for allegedly manufacturing and selling humidifier disinfectants containing toxic chemicals. The reinvestigation came after a 2011 scandal involving toxic humidifier disinfectants sold by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser rattled Korea, leaving more than 100 people dead from lung problems.

Aekyung Industrial made and sold its own sterilizer product branded Humidifier Mate.

A former senior executive vice president of Aekyung Industrial, identified only as Yang, was given a one-year prison term for taking part in Ko’s cover-up attempt, while an incumbent company official, surnamed Lee, received a one-year suspended sentence on the same charge. The three were accused of concealing and destroying the company’s documents related to the toxicity of Humidifier Mate.

“Ko has made unreasonable statements to claim his innocence. He argued his subordinates voluntarily destroyed evidence and said he didn’t remember well what happened in the past,” the court said, rebuking the defendant.

“Ko’s offense is serious considering social problems caused by defective humidifier sterilizers,” it said.

The chemicals under new scrutiny were chloromethylisothiazolinone (CMIT) and methylisothiazolinone (MIT).

After prosecutors’ initial probe in 2016, officials at Oxy, Lotte Mart and Homeplus were indicted for manufacturing or selling humidifier disinfectants containing the hazardous chemical polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG).

The 34 suspects indicted in July after the reinvestigation were not subject to prosecutors’ initial probe, as no correlation between CMIT and MIT and health issues had been established at that time, but as more studies proving their toxicity were released, their dangers later came to light.

Prosecutors’ reinvestigation has gained traction since the Ministry of Environment submitted related data and studies to the prosecution in November last year.

The humidifier disinfectant scandal, one of the country’s worst ever involving chemical consumer products, was spotlighted after four pregnant women died of lung problems in 2011.

As of late July, more than 6,400 people were registered as victims of the humidifier sterilizers, of whom about 1,420 have died.

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