In 2011, hospital records showed some of the first deaths due to the chemicals in humidifier sterilizers. The main culprit, polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), was used to disinfect the water stored in humidifiers that are a household favorite in South Korea especially during the dry winter seasons. Oxy Reckitt Benckiser (Oxy RB), the Korean division of the British-based company Reckitt Benckiser, has been the main target of the scandal as the market leader of humidifier sterilizers sold in Korea since 1994. Following the release of the hospital reports, Reckitt Benckiser subsequently withdrew their sterilizer product from the Korean market but the damage had been done. Since 2011, a string of investigations and lawsuits followed, taking over six years to reach a conclusion.
|A civic protest against Oxy RB
Out of the Frying Pan
Now with almost 200 deaths and 400 confirmed victims of the fatal disinfectant, the crisis has shifted to the concluding stages of a lengthy legal battle that took six years to unravel. The first and second rounds of investigations by the Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute (KEITI) has ended, with supplier Oxy RB, manufacturer SK Chemicals, and retailers Lotte Mart and Homeplus paying reparations to victims of their product. Oxy RB, the main defendant, has reached settlements with 169 of the 182 people who filed for damages. Lotte Mart and Homeplus have settled with all the 48 and 35 registered victims respectively.
On July 26, an appellate trial sentenced the former chief of Oxy RB, Hyun-woo Shin, to six years in jail, a much lower term than the 20 years that the prosecutors had demanded. Subsequently, the Seoul High Court upheld this decision, finding Mr. Shin guilty of accidental homicide due to professional negligence. Another executive who headed Oxy RB after Mr. Shin was given a not-guilty verdict while three employees from the research division were convicted and given four to six-year jail terms.
The third round of investigations by KEITI will conclude around the time this article will be published, and already Oxy RB has announced their commitment to abiding by the results of the investigation, stating that all victims will be fully compensated.
This nationwide disaster has hit Oxy RB hard, with the company projected to dole out upwards of 200 billion KRW by the end of it all. They also announced the shutdown of their plant in Iksan, Korea, by the end of the month, massively scaling down their business in the country.
Meanwhile, a civic group created specifically by and for victims of the Oxy crisis maintains that 1,212 out of the registered 5,657 victims have died since the crisis began in 2011. Members of the group continue to stage peaceful protests in front of the Oxy RB headquarters in Seoul, demanding that they withdraw their businesses completely from Korea.
Into the Fire
The legalities aside, the Oxy RB disaster has spanned six years and counting, leaving a trail of innocent victims and traumatized survivors in its wake. But the gavel of the court has yet to hit its final note — the consolation of justice still slightly out of reach — when the mourning nation is hit again and again with two more major public health crises. The weary and battle-worn Korea is swept once more into scandal, this time into toxic eggs and sanitary pads.
The Oxy RB crisis was criticized from the beginning with attempted denials, cover-ups, slow-pacing of investigations, and lack of government oversight and intervention. We can only hope that these new scandals are handled with efficiency, strict legal tolerances, and swift enforcement. Otherwise, history — a history of only six years ago and one that is still in progress — will repeat itself, throwing an angry and grieving nation into paranoia and chaos.