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       Hazards special online report, June 2015
Reckitt Benckiser: ‘Condolences’ after 100 disinfectant deaths
UK multinational Reckitt Benckiser (RB) describes itself as “a global force in health.” Korean campaigners, whose claim that at least 100 people in the country have been killed by an RB disinfectant has been backed up by official investigations, have a less rosy view of its health record. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill reports.

At the 22 April 2015 launch of Reckitt Benckiser’s (RB) sustainability report, Rakesh Kapoor, the chief executive officer of the UK multinational, commented: “While I am proud of the progress that we have made, we will continue to challenge ourselves to do more with less to achieve our vision of a world where people are healthier and live better.”

The report, A global force in health and hygiene, notes “50 per cent of products in pipeline more sustainable than their predecessors.” It has a section on “developing responsible products”, with a commitment to “strive to use better ingredients – for consumers and the environment.”

The company has a ‘happier homes’ website, too, that “helps consumers to use our products in a more sustainable way.” Those products include household names like Finish dishwasher tablets, Harpic, Calgon and Dettol.

CHILDREN FIRST  Studies have established that pre-school children and pregnant women are at highest risk from humidifier disinfectants. UK multinational RB dominated the market for these products.

Kapoor’s company had a ‘good start’ to 2015, the FTSE 100 consumer goods group reporting a rise in first-quarter revenue this year of 1 per cent, to £2.2bn. Releasing latest quarterly figures on 24 April 2015, he said they showed it was “on track” for a moderate to “nice” operating margin. Karpoor himself is also doing nicely, with his pay packet of £6.7m in 2013 way ahead of his rivals in the sector.

Nowhere in the latest financial returns, sustainability report or RB annual report is there any mention of the deaths in South Korea of at least 100 people, all victims of an RB disinfectant and all developing pneumonia-like systems before dying of “a severe inhalation lung injury”.


Death by disinfectant

In a May 2015 vigil outside RB’s HQ in Slough, Berkshire, some of the company’s Korean consumers challenged its health and consumer safety claims.

TERRIBLE GRIEF  Changsoo Maeng (right) lost his wife and Kim Dukjong (second right) his five-year-old son after they were exposed to a disinfectant produced by UK multinational Reckitt Benckiser (RB).

From 19 May for five days the group displayed a “Death calendar of 142 Korean babies, pregnant women and innocent consumers killed by humidifier disinfectants.” The large banner noted that the Korean government had confirmed at least 100 of the deaths resulted from the use of RB products.

RB’s ‘Oxy’ disinfectant had an 80 per cent market share in a product used by 8 million people. So far humidifier disinfectants have been linked directly to 142 deaths. The RB product was sold only in South Korea and has now been withdrawn, as have similar products including the Denmark-sourced Cefu disinfectant.

In July 2012, the Korean Fair Trade Commission (KFTC) found Reckitt Benckiser guilty of falsely advertising its product as “safe to humans” , fining the company 50 million won (£28,500). Lee Tae-hwi, director of the consumer division at the KFTC’s Seoul office, announcing the penalty, said: “We expect this decision to serve as a wake-up call for businesses, who must only distribute products that are safe for human use.” An appeal was thrown out by the South Korean Supreme Court.
Reckitt Benckiser, though, has still to admit culpability or to provide the “sincere apology” sought by those affected.

RB'S disinfectant killed my son

Kim Dukjong, a 39-year-old firefighter from Kumi City in South Korea, lost his five-year-old son in May 2009 to ‘humidifier disinfectant-associated children’s interstitial lung disease’. The normally lively child, Kim Seungjun, “just wanted to lie down and he had a bit of a fever. Then he struggled to breathe.” Within six days of his admission to Kyungpook University hospital in Daegu the child was dead.
    It was only by chance and over two years later the grieving parents learned what killed their son. An August 2011 television news report said an official inquiry into an unexplained outbreak of serious lung disease similar to pneumonia had discovered a “significant association” with the use of humidifier disinfectant that was marketed to parents in a country where winters are dry and cold.

Approached by Hazards, RB declined to comment on whether it accepted responsibility for these deaths and many other cases of ongoing and severe respiratory ill-health.

In a statement, RB said: “This matter is taken very seriously by RB. Our deepest condolences go to the families involved in the issue. The matter has been the subject of legal action in Korea for several years and we are continuing to work within the legal system in Korea. A fair resolution for all those concerned is our number one priority.”

The company said it had made a “humanitarian donation” of £5m to an account set up by the Korean government to cover some of the victims’ costs. But this should not be taken as an acceptance of culpability, RB said.

Professor Domyung Paek, author of one of the three Korean government reports on the poisonings, said the RB statement was “very disappointing” and “lip service”. There was only “condolences but no sincere apology”, he added.

  Professor Domyung Paek led the first official investigation into humidifier disinfectant related lung disease. Paek questions RB’s claims of corporate and environmental responsibility, and accuses it of “lip service.”

Paek, a professor of occupational medicine at Seoul National University, chaired the first government probe into the condition, a Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare-ordered investigation which examined 391 cases in 2013/2014.

Speaking alongside victims at the RB vigil, he said: “The company claims its core values are ‘health, hygiene and home’.  In truth, it has destroyed the health of the victims, brought disease into their homes and ruined families.

“The company and its executives say they are sorry, but they do not accept responsibility. That is their formal position. And it isn’t good enough.”

RB’s spokesperson said the case was “unprecedented due to the complexity and technical nature of the issues,” adding: “The question of causation is still very much a live issue and is subject to judicial review in the litigation.”


Meeting with anger

Yeyong Choi, director of the Seoul-based Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, said this has remained the company line throughout, with RB “repeating the same thing over and over without any concrete action.”

RB should think of the children
Changsoo Maeng lost his wife aged 38 in September 2009. “My wife began to use humidifier disinfectants around 1998 and we conceived a boy in February 2002. Suddenly she suffered from the symptoms of a cold and fever,” he recalls.
    “The lives of my wife and baby were suddenly at risk and I agreed to have an induced labour and for my baby to be put in an incubator, although we were just seven months into the pregnancy.
     “The baby did grow to a normal size eventually but my wife had difficulty breathing. She left hospital but, over the next four years, the symptoms would come and go. They got worse in 2009 and she died. I would ask the chief executive of this company to think of me, and my children, who have lost their mother.”
   Over 500 Koreans are believed to have been affected, with over a quarter dying. The most recent victim, a 45-year-old mother, died on 9 May 2015.

With Paek, he has published heavyweight research papers on the outbreak of ‘humidifier disinfectant-associated interstitial lung disease’ which found the risks were particularly high in pre-school children and pregnant women.  Choi, who also attended the vigil, accused RB of “framing the problem narrowly”, with the response “restricted to legal issues without mentioning social responsibility.”

A planned protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London on 22 May was cancelled, with the group instead deciding to maintain their candlelit vigil outside RB’s Slough HQ.

A meeting that morning with senior representatives of the company, said Choi, again ended with “no apology, no promise of resolution but simply personal sympathy.”

Alongside Choi and Paek were bereaved relatives, including Changsoo Maeng, whose wife died aged 38 in 2009 after exposure to the RB disinfectant. Emerging from the meeting, Maeng tore up the paper RB had presented to the delegation and shouted: “I’m not here to get this meaningless paper. I’m going to sue you, RB’s HQ, in the British courts for your accountability.”

The campaigners say RB will now face at least two lawsuits in the UK.

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Come clean

UK multinational Reckitt Benckiser (RB) describes itself as “a global force in health.” But Korean campaigners have a less rosy view of its health record. A disinfectant produced by RB -- the company behind household names including Finish dishwasher tablets, Harpic, Calgon and Dettol -- has been linked by official investigations to at least 100 deaths.

•    Introduction
•    Death by disinfectant
•    Meeting with anger

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All photos by Yeyong Choi