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Toxic disinfectant probe gains momentum

Experts say manufacturer’s ‘yellow dust’ claim may take several years of additional tests

The probe into toxic humidifier disinfectant is quickly gaining momentum, as the prosecution is set to start consultations with the victims on compensation this week.

Questions, however, persist over the direction of the investigation, the current legal system and the government’s role in the tragedy that has led to more than 200 deaths allegedly caused by using the products.

“We are going to help them with practical compensation, by discussing with representatives of the victims group within this week,” an official from the special probe team was quoted as saying.
A group of protesters participate in a campaign to boycott Oxy Reckitt Benckiser products calling for corporate punishment for the firms behind toxic humidifier disinfectants during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
A group of protesters participate in a campaign to boycott Oxy Reckitt Benckiser products calling for corporate punishment for the firms behind toxic humidifier disinfectants during a press conference in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)
Park Ki-ho, a male victim’s father, told The Korea Herald, “We decided to work with lawyers from the Lawyers for a Democratic Society and we will strive to get our voice heard until the firms (responsible for toxic humidifier disinfectants) apologize in front of us.” Victims of the toxic humidifier disinfectant agreed Sunday in a closed-door meeting to push ahead with a group litigation. Victims and their families also decided to promote the boycott of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser products.

According to the prosecution, the special probe team is set to summon four executives of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser -- including former CEO Shin Hyun-woo -- on Tuesday. Shin headed the firm in 2001 when it started selling the disputed humidifier disinfectant.

Last week, the prosecution reconfirmed the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report that there is a significant association between the health impacts and the use of Oxy’s humidifier disinfectant.

The KCDCP in 2011 had submitted a report that the use of humidifier disinfectant can cause serious health damage.

However, the company submitted its own 77-page report last month to refute this, saying the deaths may have been triggered by other factors such as yellow dust in spring. The prosecution argued that the newly submitted report has “low credibility.”

Oxy’s PR agency Prain Global told The Korea Herald that the firm’s additional report was in line with “earnest cooperation with all investigations and steps to pursue a solution.”

Experts voiced concern that it could take several years to figure out whether the deaths of disinfectant users were due to yellow dust as claimed by the company. They would need to conduct additional tests to figure out the correlation or redo the toxicity test for the use of disputed humidifier disinfectant.

According to the Korea Institute of Toxicology, experiment on toxic chemicals and its health impacts normally takes 24 to 36 months to ensure the accuracy of the test.

“Experiments to test harmful chemicals or carcinogenic substances on animals take at least two years. Chemicals that are tested by inhalation (such as humidifier disinfectant) may especially take longer with more detailed processes, with at least 1 billion won ($870,400) as experiment fee,” an official from KIT told The Korea Herald.

Prain Global said it cannot check whether Oxy will conduct another toxicity test on its disputed humidifier disinfectant.

Experts also criticized the weak legal basis to punish the companies, as well as the government’s unsystematic reaction to the incident.

Current law has no stipulation to punish companies responsible for huge loss of lives.

In July 2015, some 800 civilians signed and submitted a legislation petition to the National Assembly in order to penalize companies who do not follow due civic and crime responsibility.

In 2014, when the sinking of the Sewol ferry left 304 dead or missing, then-ship operator Cheonghaejin Marine Co. was only fined 10 million won for an oil spill.

The prosecution last week summoned officials from Oxy’s marketing team to question them over false advertising and for claiming that its products are “99 percent sterilized and not harmful even to children.”

“It is quite a light punishment for Oxy to just get penalized for false advertising, which can amount to a maximum of 150 million won in fines,” lawyer Hwang Kyung-hwa told The Korea Herald.

“The Environment Ministry designated more than 200 patients to just one hospital in Seoul, which takes about three years per patient to check if their health damages are related to the use of toxic humidifier disinfectant. Even before the cause of their health damage is confirmed, the statute of limitation against firms behind the toxic disinfectants will lapse,” she added.

On Monday, Rep. Jang Ha-na from the main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea contended that local chemical manufacturer SK Chemical should be held responsible as well for producing and selling PHMG, saying that “the firm was aware of the toxicity of the chemical when inhaled.”

“SK Chemical should step up and take responsibility for providing the base material of the disputed humidifier disinfectants to companies,” said Rep. Jang in a statement.

The prosecution said they would focus on finding out whether the Oxy executives had known of the toxicity of PHMG contained in their products, as well as whether they had destroyed related evidence after four disinfectant users died in 2011. It will also question if the firm fabricated the materials safety data sheet, on suspicion that Oxy bribed professors at Seoul National University and Hoseo University in exchange for overlooking toxicity test results.

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)
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