The case of humidifier sterilizers sold exclusively popularly in Korea from 2001 to 2011 and responsible for lung ailments for 530 people including 92 deaths has built up explosively to become the biggest and most shameful consumer-related controversy in Korea.
If authorities regulated and stopped a toxic chemical originally developed to clean carpets from going into a product people inhale daily, if research institutes did honest job in safety tests and manufacturers and retailers voluntarily halted production and sales upon seeing damages, and if policy-making or law-making officials took interest in repeated pleads and complaints from victims and consumers, lives would not have been cut short.
Like the Sewol ferry disaster, the humidifier sterilizer case stems from poor public safety awareness, shady collusion between business and bureaucrats, poor government supervision and regulation, unethical business practices, and indifferent legislative. An estimated 250 deaths are feared to be connected with humidifier sterilizer over the 22 years since the products went on sale and over 1,500 are pained for life to live with lung ailment. More than half of victims were infants and small children.
Politicians are poised to launch a hearing separately with the prosecution probe, and retailers have joined consumers in boycotting produces of Reckitt Benckiser, which is believed to be accountable for 70 deaths from its most widely-sold sterilizer under Oxy label. The belated actions won’t bring back lives but could stop the tragedy from recurring.
Here is the account of the case development so far.
◆ In 1994
A product to sterilize water stains and other germs in humidifiers was first developed by Korean chemical company Yukong Bioteck in November 1994. The company said it invested 1.8 billion won to develop the product. The company said its new product can remove all bacteria in the water. But the product’s main ingredients - CMIT and MIT - harbored a fatal risk. CMIT and MIT prohibit proliferation of bacteria and they are widely used in bathroom products like shampoo and body wash because they have no skin toxicity. But when inhaled, they can cause damages to respiratory system.
No other markets use them in inhaling consumer products. Korean authorities were not aware of the potential damage. CMIT and MIT were applied to consumer products without safety test because they had been in use before the Toxic Chemicals Control Act enacted in 1991.
◆ In 1998
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a Registration Eligibility Decision report for agrochemicals in 1998. The report classified MIT as Category II inhalation toxicity substance and stated it is concerned that the substance can be inhaled faster in a closed room. But it took more than 10 years for Korean environment authorities to pay attention to this warning.
◆ In 2001
The poor health awareness became lethal after use of humidifiers became commonplace at homes and offices from 2001. Oxy, then affiliated to Oriental Chemical Industries, launched its own product called ‘Oxy Sak Sak.’ Coincidently, Oxy was acquired by U.K.’s home and living supply company Reckitt Benckiser that year. The main ingredient of the Oxy product was polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG). According to the Ministry of Environment, PHMG developed by Oriental Chemical was approved for use in carpet cleaning and sterilizing, but Oxy didn’t bother to alert the authorities in its application on humidifier sterilizer. The government also did not scrutinize over the ingredients. The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety was responsible for disinfectants, but there was no policy regarding humidifier sterilizers. Even the government awarded one PHMG product reported as a cleaning agent with Korea Certification Mark in 2007. When Oxy products sold well, other company turned out copycat brands. Eleven companies launched 14 products.
An interstitial lung disease of an unknown cause emerged in 2003, and young patients suffering from unexplained acute respiratory failure were simultaneously hospitalized in 2006.
The toxic humidifier sterilizer case took a new turn in 2011. Hong Soo-jong, a pediatrician at Asan Medical Center, demanded an investigation into the increasing number of nationwide patients with bad lung conditions, finding it strange that so many young patients with lung disease kept checking into the hospital one after the other since 2006. The Korea Center for Disease Control & Prevention launched an epidemiologic investigation and in August, the Ministry of Health and Welfare pointed to the humidifier sterilizers as the cause. However, it was only in November that the government ordered removal of six humidifier sterilizers that contained polyhexamethylene guanidine phosphate (PHMG) including the best-selling product made by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea.
Concerned ministries gathered to come up with comprehensive measures to safely manage consumer chemical products, but without reaching any conclusion. The government offices mostly tossed the case to each other, with some saying that it should be overseen by the Ministry of Health and Welfare as it involves health issues while some blamed it should be dealt by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy as it deals with a manufactured product. Some argued that the case should fall in the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment because it is an environmentally-related issue. In November, 2012, the government announced that all issues involving consumer chemical goods that were under the industry ministry will from now on be managed by the environment ministry. The humidifier sterilizers were sold as industrial goods, which was why they were overseen by the industry ministry but the government decided to transfer all related management to the environment ministry due to the fatal ramification.
In the following year in February, 2013, prosecutors suspended indictment of criminal charges raised by a group of victims against the manufacturer and distributor of humidifier sterilizers. The suspension has raised suspicions today that the government had tried to undercut the case. In May, the government enacted a legislation that involves the registration and evaluation of chemical products to prevent similar cases from happening and enforced the act in January, last year. However, there are criticisms that the legislation falls short of expectation and that it has failed to be in full practice due to conflict of interest from the government and the overall industrial circle.
In August, 2014, a group of victims filed its second criminal charge against the manufacturer and distributor of humidifier sterilizers. Investigation, however, was slow and no progress was made. The public rage that spread in 2011 waned out and they slowly began to forget about the victims from killer sterilizers.
Twenty two years after in 2016, prosecutorial investigation picked up speed after President Park Geun-hye ordered related ministries to make a thorough investigation and take measures so that victims can be looked after. Prosecutors moved busily and expanded their special investigation team. Shin Hyun-woo, former chief executive of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, was called in by the prosecutors for questioning for the first time in 22 years and was put under court custody. Oxy Reckitt Benckiser also broke five years of silence and offered an official apology.
Problems, however, still linger. Investigations have not yet been launched into other products like Humidifier Mate that has been produced by SK Chemicals and distributed by Aekyung. The product contains problematic toxic chemicals such as MIT and CMIT that has also led to many casualties. The globally unprecedented case that involves toxic consumer goods is still ongoing.
By Park In-hye, Lee Seung-yoon, and Park Eun-jin
[ⓒ Pulse by Maeil Business News Korea & mk.co.kr, All rights reserved]