The long fight for justice for South Korea’s deadly steriliser victims

When Ahn Seong-woo, 38, bought a bottle of liquid steriliser for his humidifier at home in 2010, he thought he was creating a healthy environment for his wife, who was pregnant with their second child.

He didn’t expect that decision to bring tragedy.

Ahn’s wife developed a sudden breathing problem in February 2011. She was taken to a hospital but the diagnosis was grim: her lungs had been completely destroyed. She and the child inside her both died within a matter of days.

His surviving son suffers from pulmonary fibrosis. Ahn now represents victims of one of the worst environmental disasters in South Korean history.

Called ‘humidifier steriliser’, the product Ahn and many South Koreans bought claimed to eradicate the bacteria inside humidifiers without posing any harm to the human body. Hundreds of thousands of bottles were sold each year between 1994 and 2011.

Some eight million people in this nation of 50 million are believed to have been exposed to it. More than 1,500 people have been injured and more than 230 died as a result, according to the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health.

The connection between the humidifier steriliser and these injuries and deaths wasn’t made clear until after Ahn’s wife died. In spring of 2011, seven pregnant women suffering from sudden respiratory illness were rushed to hospitals, alarming the public. Four died from lung failures. Their symptoms were similar to those suffered by young children in previous years. Doctors, confounded by an illness with no known cause, rallied to solve the mystery.

Under mounting pressure, the Korean Center for Disease Control finally conducted a study, and the result, announced on 31 August 2011, pointed to the humidifier steriliser as the possible cause of the health crisis. A two month-long animal test that followed confirmed the finding.


Harmless on the skin, deadly when inhaled

The humidifier steriliser scandal has a long history.

It was in November 1994 that a South Korean firm – Yugong, now called SK Chemical – began selling a humidifier steriliser on the domestic market that it claimed was “capable of completely eradicating bacteria in humidifiers”.

Other companies followed suit, mainly using two different chemicals: polyhexamethylene guanidine phosphate (PHMG) and oligo(2-(2-ethoxy)-ethoxyethyl)guanidinium-chloride (PGH). Commonly added to shampoo, wet wipes, and cleaners for water and septic tanks, PHMG and PGH are believed to be harmless when in contact with human skin or consumed.

Inhalation, however, has proved to be a different matter.

It is now known that when a humidifier vaporises PHMG and PGH and releases them into the air, they enter the lungs and destroy body tissues. When the damage repeats itself, tissues begin to harden, leading to a condition known as pulmonary fibrosis. Severe damage causes breathing difficulties and, in the worst-case scenario, death.

No company or government agency made any effort before 2011 to determine what effect inhaling PHMG and PGH, as well as other chemicals used in humidifier steriliser, would have on humans.

Yugong, the first company to sell humidifier steriliser, didn’t submit PHMG for government review until 1996, two years after it went on sale. The ensuing Ministry of Environment report, issued in March 1997, categorised the chemical as “not a toxic substance” based on the company’s proposal to use it as an antibacterial in carpets.

After Yugong became SK Chemical, the company exported PHMG to Australia and, in 2003, supplied Canberra with a report that the chemical may be dangerous to inhale, but “watched from afar while humidifier steriliser using PHMG was circulating on the market,” a member of the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health asserted in an interview with the Business Watch website.

SK Chemical denies knowingly supplying PHMG for use in humidifier steriliser.

The South Korean subsidiary of the UK-based health and hygiene multinational Reckitt Benckiser (its biggest-selling products include Dettol, Gaviscon and Durex) also used PHMG in its humidifier steriliser starting in October 2000. The company’s product has been blamed for killing more than 100 people – the largest number of victims in the South Korean humidifier steriliser scandal.

One month after the product went on sale, Oxy-Reckitt Benckiser – as the South Korean subsidiary is known – is reported to have made inquiries at two separate laboratories, in the US and the UK, about conducting a toxicity test. It never took place.

In a move widely seen as aimed at evading responsibility, Oxy hired two university professors to write reports disavowing any connection between the victims’ ailments and Oxy’s product. The police have since arrested the two men. South Korean media have also reported that Oxy restructured itself in December 2011 from a publicly-traded company into a limited company, in order to shield itself from criminal liability.

As the criminal investigation intensified this spring, Ata Safdar, Reckitt Benckiser’s South Korea president, issued a formal apology and promised compensation at a press conference in Seoul on 2 May – nearly five years after the product was pulled from the market.

“This is the first time we are accepting the fullest responsibility, and we are offering a complete and full apology,” Safdar told reporters.

Reckitt-Benckiser’s website carries a similar apology. It nevertheless reads that the Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC) “suggested” a link between its product and lung injury, insinuating that the connection is less than certain.

To be fair to Reckitt-Benckiser, none of the companies implicated in the scandal took explicit measures to address the fallout and victims until this year.


Governmental was “slow to act”

South Korean prosecutors are finally considering whether to bring several charges against current and former executives at Oxy and other companies: professional negligence resulting in injury and death, false advertising, fraud and murder. But the prosecutorial investigation didn’t begin until last October, prompting accusations that the government has been too slow to act.

In 2003 the government tested the other chemical implicated in the scandal – PGH – but only for harmful effects of consumption, even though the manufacturer clearly indicated that it could be used in a spray form.

That official negligence, coupled with the failure to properly regulate the use of PHMG and other chemicals, has prompted some media outlets to dub the scandal the “Sewol in the Bedroom,” after the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol two years ago off South Korea’s south-western coast, which killed 304 people, most of them teenagers on a school trip. In that disaster, failure of health and safety oversight and a private industry out of control also were blamed as the main causes.

Baskut Tuncak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, remarked at the conclusion of his visit to South Korea last October that while the humidifier steriliser scandal had led to “steps towards improving the management of hazardous substances,” he remained “concerned about the sufficiency of preventative measures”.

Environmental NGOs rallied in front of Oxy’s headquarters in Seoul on 31 May, reiterating that the government had yet to introduce legislation that would prevent similar disasters.

Any attempt at meaningful oversight comes too late for the victims and their families, including one father who gave a tearful speech at the same press conference where the Oxy president apologised.

“I slowly killed my child over four months. To raise my child in a better condition, I used the humidifier steriliser everyday,” he said. “I just want to hear, ‘You didn’t kill them, we did’”.