[Interview] Humidifier disinfectant raises same questions as the Sewol sinking

Posted on : 2016-05-04 16:22 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Despite an unknown number of deaths and illnesses, safety measures over disinfectant still haven’t been enacted
Choi Ye-yong
Choi Ye-yong

The most frightening part about the humidifier disinfectant scandal is the uncertainty about the number of victims. There is no way to know how many of those who used the humidifier disinfectants were harmed or died between 1994, when the products were first developed by the company Yugong (today SK Chemicals), and 2011, when they were taken off the market.

“The number of people who were harmed by their use of humidifier disinfectants is thought to range from 290,000 at the least to 2.27 million at the most. But only 1,528 people have filed claims so far, which is less than 1% of the minimum figure,” said Choi Ye-yong, 51, director of the Asian Citizens’ Center for Environment and Health.

Choi, who has been working with the victims’ families on this issue since the news broke five years ago, made the remark during a telephone interview with the Hankyoreh that took place after face-to-face interviews on May 2 and May 3 at her office in Seoul.

These estimates for the number of victims are based on the following evidence. In a survey conducted by South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control in 2011, 18.1% of South Koreans said that they had used humidifier sterilizers. Since the population of South Korea at the time was 49.41 million, this represents 8.94 million users.

A study carried out by Hoseo University at the request of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser (which sold the products in question) found high concentrations of toxic chemicals in two out of 60 experiments. Two-sixtieths of 8.94 million is 290,000.

But the figure of 2.27 million is not inflated, either. In a survey carried out by the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at Seoul National University‘s School of Public Health this past December, 22% of the public (10.87 million) reported that they had previously used humidifier disinfectants while 20.9% of this group (2.27 million) said they had previously had health problems.

Since last month, the Asian Citizens’ Center for Environment and Health has been inundated with phone calls - more than 100 a day - with people claiming to have been harmed.

As Choi sees it, there were three missed opportunities for South Korean society to greatly reduce the harm caused by the humidifier disinfectants. The first was when Yugong developed the chemicals for the humidifier disinfectants in 1994. The second was when Oxy (which controlled about 80% of the entire humidifier disinfectant market) replaced its previous chemicals with the ones in question, namely PHMG (polyhexamethylene guanidine) and PGH (Oligo(2-(2-ethoxy)ethoxyethyl guanidine chloride), in 2001. The third was when children who had difficulty breathing were brought to pediatric hospitals in downtown Seoul, with many of them dying, between 2006 and 2007.

If the companies involved had properly reviewed the safety of these chemicals or if the Ministry of Environment had taken action to identify the causes of the illnesses, the health crisis could have been averted or its scale mitigated.

As late as Aug. 31, 2011, when the government announced the results of the epidemiologic study, it ought to have identified the humidifier disinfectant at issue. And if the police and the prosecutors had carried out a proper investigation when victims sued Oxy in 2012, the grief of the victims would not be as great as it is today.

Choi has plenty to say about the prosecutors, who are finally getting around to setting up a team of investigators after dawdling for more than three years after the suit was filed.

“While they were dilly-dallying, the statute of limitation expired for more than 30% of the victims who could have pressed charges,” he said. “On top of that, the prosecutors are not even investigating the Aekyung Group, the company that was selling the humidifier disinfectants. Furthermore, they do not even appear to be considering whether the chemicals might be harmful not just to the lungs but also to other parts of the body.”

The double whammy of incompetence and irresponsibility at the Ministry of Environment and the Centers for Disease Control at the Ministry of Health and Welfare prompted Choi to take aim at the government as well.

“This scandal forces us to ask about the reason for the state’s existence. Who in the world are South Korea’s civil servants working for? This is the same question that was posed by the sinking of the Sewol ferry. It‘s not at all just empty rhetoric to describe the humidifier disinfectant scandal as the Sewol tragedy in the home,” Choi said.

On May 3, Choi filed petitions with the committees for research integrity at Seoul National University and Hoseo University to find out why researchers there had failed to properly report the truth even after they researched the toxicity of the humidifier disinfectants at Oxy’s request.

On May 4, Choi will be departing for London. The stockholders meeting for Reckitt Benckiser, Oxy’s parent company, will be held on May 5, which is Children’s Day in South Korea, and Choi is planning to hold a press conference in front of the Reckitt Benckiser headquarters to raise awareness of the company‘s immoral behavior. In addition, Choi will file a complaint against company executives with the London police.

Choi will be accompanied by Kim Deok-jong, the father of a boy named Kim Seung-joon, who died after using the humidifier disinfectant.

When asked what lessons South Korean society should learn from this incident, which has resulted in so many victims, Choi’s response was surprisingly simple.

“Whatever you do, don‘t use products that spray droplets into the air. These droplets are breathed in by the person using them. The fact is that there’s not a single spray product that has been confirmed to be safe for the human body. No safety measures have been taken in South Korea for products that could cause similar harm during the five years since news broke about the humidifier disinfectant scandal,” Choi said.

By Jeon Jong-hwi, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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