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Korean consumers campaign for justice after Reckitt Benckiser humidifier tragedy

The CEO of UK household goods company Reckitt Benckiser (RB Group), Rakesh Kapoor, has issued a public apology to the victims of the humidifier disinfectant scandal in South Korea. The apology came 5 years after it was discovered that Oxy RB, a subsidiary of RB Group, misled consumers by selling products containing toxic chemicals – an act of misconduct which is now known to have led to over 100 deaths. 

Campaigners and consumer organisations protest against Oxy RB's conduct

The apology was delivered to a special parliamentary delegation, including victims of the tragedy and members of the South Korean National Assembly. Although campaigners welcomed the apology they are still calling on the company to do more to uncover the truth behind the scandal and provide better compensation to victims and their families.

Campaigners, including  Miran Mun - Vice President of Consumers International member Consumers Korea, met at Consumers International on 22nd September 2016 to discuss raising awareness of the issue amongst our members and the global consumer movement.

The Oxy RB humidifier scandal: 17 years in the making

Oxy RB have long been a well established name in the South Korean household goods market. They first began selling humidifier disinfectant products to Korean consumers in 1994. Since their arrival, Oxy RB have emerged as a market leader and sold over 4 million bottles of disinfectant between 2001 and 2011.

Due to the dryer winters in South Korea, humidifiers are widely used in hospitals and maternity clinics to increase patient comfort and assist with breathing. Disinfectant chemicals are applied to the humidifiers to ensure that the water vapour released into the atmosphere is clean and sterile.

Despite the disinfectants being sold as a 'health' product, they contained toxic chemicals including PHMG, a chemical known to be unsafe for human inhalation which can lead to irreparable lung damage and even death.

Although many cases of inflammation of lung tissues in pregnant mothers and children were reported throughout the early 2000s, it was not until 2011 that research by the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a causal link between the humidifier disinfectants & lung injuries. Since 2011, over 4,000 Korean's have reported health issues linked to the humidifiers, with around 260 reported deaths.

Campaigners claim that Oxy RB frustrated the following investigation by concealing the results of tests, including deleting data and details of the findings.


Irresponsible marketing misled consumers

According to campaigners and government officials, Oxy RB's labelling of the products it sold to consumers contributed to the widespread misuse of the products. Many of the disinfectant bottles displayed messaging on the outer packaging: 'Safe for the human body, and  even 99.9% safe to use for children'. In addition, the bottles sold after 2006 did not provide the measuring cap, which was previously used to guide consumers on the amount of disinfectant required for each humidifier.

The right to be safe and to be informed are two consumer rights that are of essential importance to the global campaign work conducted by Consumers International and its members. It is clear that both of these rights were undermined by the irresponsible practices of RB Group in South Korea.

In July 2016, a special investigation taskforce was established by the South Korean National Assembly. The taskforce set out with 3 main objectives; uncovering the truth, claiming compensation for the victims and preventing repeat occurrences of such tragedies.

The taskforce’s work has run alongside concerted pressure from consumers organisations in Korea, including Consumers Korea, and a network of NGOs that have organised boycotts, public protests and called for product recalls. So far campaign successes have included the arrest and indictment of former the Oxy RB CEO, and the arrest of a University Professor who allegedly manipulated a study of the toxic components in the disinfectant.

While this week's public apology from the RB Group is significant step towards justice, the taskforce and consumer coalition will seek to continue its work in ensuring full compensation for all of the victims' families and the active participation of the company in revealing the truth behind what happened.

The need for global awareness

At Consumers International, we strive to work collectively with our members to achieve positive outcomes for consumers across the globe. Although the immediate impacts of the Reckitt Benckiser humidifier scandal were experienced in South Korea, it is important to acknowledge that this tragedy could have taken place anywhere. Reckitt Benckiser is a multi-national company that sells its products to consumers in nearly 200 countries worldwide.

As a collective body of consumer organisations, we must work together to ensure that we continue to raise awareness of consumer grievances such as the tragic case of the Oxy RB victims. It is only by sharing our experiences that we can hope to hold multi-national companies to account and prevent such tragedies from repeating themselves.