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Oxy suspected of watering down report

Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, which has been blamed for the deaths of at least 221 humidifier disinfectant users, was found to have countered the government’s health probe with their own research that suggested the deaths may have been caused by other factors, sources said Sunday.

Victims of the toxic humidifier disinfectant, meanwhile, held a press conference followed by a closed-door meeting Sunday to discuss future measures and condemn the product manufacturers and distributors for their “manipulation of the media with superficial apologies.”
Participants pay silent tribute to victims during a meeting of the families of the victims of the toxic humidifier disinfectant in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Participants pay silent tribute to victims during a meeting of the families of the victims of the toxic humidifier disinfectant in Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Prosecutors said that Oxy -- formally renamed Reckitt Benckiser Korea since 2014 -- submitted a 77-page report recently that sought to refute the claims, saying the deaths may have been triggered by other risk factors such as yellow dust in spring or separate germs generated from humidifiers.

The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously confirmed in 2011 that there was a significant association between the health impacts and the use of humidifier disinfectant Oxy Ssak Ssak.

The report was submitted in January this year as the prosecution began to speed up the probe into the humidifier disinfectant tragedy.

Having summoned several Oxy officials last week, the prosecution said it would also call in Oxy’s former CEO Shin Hyun-woo later this week. Shin is considered the key figure for the investigation, as he worked at the company from 1991 to 2004. The product in question was sold from 2001 onward.

Prosecutors will also look into whether the company attempted to distort the report to cover up the case.

Speculations have grown that Oxy had allegedly distorted the report on experiments the company had requested from two institutions for toxicity tests in 2011.

Right after health authorities confirmed the causal link between the products and the deaths in an August 2011 report, the British company reportedly asked for a toxicity test of the problematic ingredient, PHMG, from Seoul National University and Korea Conformity Laboratories.

In Seoul National University’s reproduction-toxicity test, the research team reportedly found out that 13 babies born to 15 pregnant mice died, adding credibility to the government’s health probe.

In a separate inhalation-toxicity test, however, the research team allegedly concluded that the causality between the disinfectant and lung diseases was not clear.

Despite the two different results, the company allegedly submitted only the latter to the prosecution this year. News reports said that the company did not collect the KCL’s report, which had a similar test results to the university’s reproduction-toxicity test.

Oxy reportedly paid over 200 million won ($174,000) to each institution for the experiments, the prosecution said.

Prosecutors are probing whether the two institutions deliberately manipulated the test results or whether there was an under-the-table deal.

Meanwhile, families of the humidifier disinfectant victims slammed the recent apologies offered by the disinfectant manufacturers and distributers Sunday.

“The companies that had remained unperturbed for the past five years have begun to move as the prosecution’s probe began to rapidly gain speed. Lotte Mart and Oxy, which had remained unmoved, started pretending to apologize in front of the press, all the while still ignoring the voices of the victims. One thing is clear in that we have heard nothing from these companies,” said Kang Chan-ho, representative of the group of the families of victims.

Lotte Mart made an apology to the victims on April 18, with a support fund of 10 billion won, a day before the prosecution started to summon the disinfectant company’s officials.

Oxy also released a letter of apology Thursday to victims of the humidifier disinfectant, saying it would offer 5 billion won in humanitarian assistance in addition to another 5 billion won in funds it had previously pledged.

The families also urged the government to take stronger measures for the victims and potential victims who are waiting for their health causality test results.

About 750 disinfectant users requested a health causality test last year to be recognized as official victims of the humidifier disinfectant. Only 221 so far have officially been confirmed to have been affected by the product. The full results are expected to be released late next year.

They also urged the government to set up a report-receiving center for other potential victims who have not been officially recognized for the damage due to relatively mild symptoms.

To the new National Assembly elected earlier this month, the victims and their families asked for a parliamentary hearing over the disinfectant tragedy. They also demanded that it pass a pending law that would allow the victims to receive financial support.

By Lee Hyun-jeong (