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Firm apologizes for poisoning hundreds

Top manager of Korean subsidiary is assaulted during press conference

by Jean-François Tremblay
May 6, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 19

Credit: AP
A relative of a victim in the British disinfectant case confronts a Reckitt Benckiser official over a deadly disinfectant chemical.
Scuffle at a press conference.
Credit: AP
A relative of a victim in the British disinfectant case confronts a Reckitt Benckiser official over a deadly disinfectant chemical.

The head of the South Korean unit of the British firm Reckitt Benckiser, a supplier of home sanitation and personal care products, was physically assaulted while apologizing for his company’s line of home humidifier disinfectants that caused the death or serious lung injuries of hundreds of victims in the country.

Reckitt Benckiser is known in the U.S. for its Lysol air freshener, Durex condoms, and Easy-Off oven cleaner, among other products.

In 1996, its South Korean subsidiary Oxy RB launched a line of humidifier disinfectants that contained a guanidine derivative. The South Korean government ordered the products off the market in 2011 after they were linked to an epidemic of serious lung injuries throughout the country. By the end of 2015, at least 95 people had died from exposure to the disinfectants, according to a survey by the South Korean Ministry of Environment. Many victims were children or pregnant women.

At a press conference in Seoul on May 2, Ata Safdar, Reckitt Benckiser’s head of operations for Korea and Japan, offered the company’s “sincere apologies.” Safdar also expressed his company’s regrets for not taking full responsibility earlier.

A chaotic event, his address was attended not only by reporters, but also by injured patients and their relatives. Safdar was shouted at, shoved, and hit in the back of the head.

Reckitt Benckiser was not the only company to supply harmful disinfectants in South Korea, but it sold the most popular brand. When the South Korean government ordered the recall in November 2011, it named six products from different companies that contained two specific guanidine derivatives—polyhexamethylene guanidine and oligo[2-(2-ethoxy)ethoxyethyl] guanidinium chloride—as active ingredients.

In a 2012 paper (Environ. Sci. Technol., DOI: 10.1021/es300567j), researchers led by Jung-Hwan Kwon of South Korea’s Ajou University noted that the two active ingredients had been approved in South Korea only for industrial use. When the compounds were later incorporated into cleaners for home humidifiers, regulations in the country did not explicitly mandate new tests, they observed.



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