Victims’ families refuse late apology by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser

Posted on : 2016-05-03 17:12 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
At a press conference, victims’ families say apology is a makeshift measure to ward off a boycott
Yoo Hye-jeong
Yoo Hye-jeong

Even after receiving the apology she’d waited nearly five years for, the mother couldn’t help but roar. Kwon Mi-ae, 40, wept as she spoke to Ata Safdar, head of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea. Of her son, she said, “He can‘t go to school. He can’t go to the pool or the playground. His favorite thing to do is play dodgeball.”

The occasion was a press conference at the Conrad Hotel in Seoulon May 2 to apologize for cases of lung damage traced to use of the company‘s products. Next to Kwon sat her wheelchair-bound son Im Seong-jun, 13, who relies on an oxygen tank to breathe.

Kwon did not know what had made her son sick until after Aug. 31, 2011, when the Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that recent mothers suffering from unexplained lung ailments had died from the use of humidifier disinfectant. Kwon herself was a user of the Oxy Ssak Ssak product.

For nearly five years, victims of disinfectant-related ailments prayed for two things from the company: an acknowledgement of responsibility and an apology. But after watching the press conference - in which the company acknowledged responsibility only unclearly and sidestepped sensitive questions about prior knowledge of the product’s harmful nature - they were unable to accept the belated message as a true apology.

The long battle by victims and civic groups began soon after the CDC announcement. On Sept. 8, 2011, the group Asian Citizens‘ Center for Environment and Health (ACCEH) criticized the CDC study’s “narrow” scope, noting that it focused only on adults at a single hospital. It subsequently began soliciting applications from victims alongside the Association of Humidifier Disinfectant Victims - all before the South Korean government began taking any action.

In Jan. 2012, Seoul National University Graduate School of Public Health professor and ACCEH co-director Paek Do-myung began pushing for a study by an academic association he belonged to. In Paek‘s view, it would take too long to wait until commissioned by the government to carry out a study. Published that June, the results of a study on exposure and health effects among disinfectant victims laid the cornerstone for the five-year-long fight to come.

Based on case studies and research, family members of nine victims who died from conditions related to disinfectant use lodged an Aug. 2012 complaint with the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, charging ten producers, distributors, and sales outlets - including Oxy, Lotte Mart, and HomePlus - with manslaughter. By this time, the ACCEH had been tipped off to a total of more than 52 dead. Yet prosecutors didn‘t begin their investigation until March of the following year, arguing that no epidemiological findings had yet emerged from public health authorities.

In May 2015, Paek joined victim family members Kim Deok-jong, 40, and Maeng Chang-soo, 50, in visiting Oxy’s headquarters in the United Kingdom to protest. Kim, an emergency response team member, had a son who died from a condition related to Oxy disinfectant use, a story that was reported in the Guardian.

“For the first two days, Oxy wouldn’t even talk to us. We met three times after that, but they kept saying they were ‘sorry at a human level,’ but wouldn’t accept responsibility,” Maeng recalled.

“The press conference apology was basically the same, with just a few phrases changed,” he added.

Kim said he saw the apology as “just the British corporation trying to stop things from going too high up the ladder.”

Speaking before the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul’s Seocho neighborhood after the Oxy press conference, the ACCEH and victims’ association declared that they would “not accept this apology from the shameless murderers at Oxy.”

“Oxy is simply putting on a show because they’re scared of the boycott spreading,” they added.

The same day, the ACCEH and association lodged a complaint with prosecutors accusing CEO Rakesh Kapoor and the seven other members of the Reckitt Benckiser board of directors in Britain of murder.

In a press briefing, a source with prosecutors said it would be difficult to hold the UK head office liable, as the disinfectant containing polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG) was first manufactured in Oct. 2000, prior to Reckitt Benckiser’s acquisition of Oxy in 2001.

At the same time, the source said “the possibility is not completely closed.”

“If the investigation turns up responsibility from the head office, we will certainly look into it,” the source added.

By Park Su-ji, Lee Jae-wook and Seo Young-ji, staff reporters

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