South Korean unit of British firm Reckitt Benckiser apologises over disinfectant blamed for more than 100 deaths

Head of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea Atar Safdar bows deeply before a media conference at a hotel in Seoul, South Korea, on May 2, 2016.
Head of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea Atar Safdar bows deeply before a media conference at a hotel in Seoul, South Korea, on May 2, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP/REUTERS) - The head of a Korean subsidiary of a British consumer goods company was slapped and shouted down on Monday (May 2) as he apologised for his firm's role in selling a humidifier disinfectant blamed for more than 100 deaths in South Korea.

Mr Ata Safdar, head of Reckitt Benckiser Korea and Japan, bowed several times in apology before an audience that included victims and their families, among them a 13-year-old boy who now uses an oxygen tank to breathe.

Shouting "too late" and "cannot forgive" in English, a handful of the victims' relatives rushed the podium where Mr Safdar was speaking at a hotel in Seoul. The executive was slapped and pushed several times as the event descended into chaos.

Mr Safdar was finally able to resume his statement, in which he offered a "heartfelt and sincere apology" to all the victims and said his company was committed to a multimillion-dollar compensation plan.

The news conference in a Seoul hotel marked the first public acceptance of responsibility by the firm for its role in a bitter controversy that has raged since 2011.

The government said last year that 92 people were believed to have died from causes related to the humidifier products - not all of them marketed by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, which was the group's South Korean arm at the time.

"Today's apology, was about acceptance of responsibility for the harm that Oxy HS (humidifier sterilizers) has caused," Mr Safdar said. "This is the first time we are accepting the fullest responsibility, and we are offering a complete and full apology.

"We were late, five years have passed, we are also apologising far too late. This is what we are apologising about."

As he spoke, a man stepped on to the stage, shouting expletives and slapping him on the back of the neck.

"This is heartbreaking," Mr Safdar said as he asked to be allowed to continue. "I apologise again. I would request that I am allowed to finish my statement, please."

Another man who mounted the stage shouted: "It's too late."

Mr Safdar also announced the creation of a 5 billion won (S$5.8 million) humanitarian fund to "provide assistance to those who have suffered".

The company had earlier donated a similar amount to a fund set up by the South Korean Environment Ministry.

The company has been sharply criticised in South Korea for taking too long to apologise or accept any responsibility in the case.

Sales of the sterilizers, a liquid added to the water of humidifiers, were suspended by the South Korean government in 2011.

Mr Safdar said some 178 users of its products are among those believed by the South Korean government to have been affected, and he outlined a plan to set up a compensation panel.

The case came to light after four pregnant women died of lung problems for unknown reasons in 2011.

A subsequent government probe found a "significant association" between lung damage and products used to sterilise domestic humidifiers.

Most of the victims were found to have used Oxy Ssak Ssak, a liquid humidifier disinfectant sold by Reckitt Benckiser in South Korea from 2001, that has been blamed for around 103 deaths - mostly women and children.

South Korea says 530 people had registered claims since 2011 of lung ailments from using humidifier sterilizers marketed by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, and similar products marketed by other firms.

South Korea is believed to be the only country where the products were sold, according to a government official.

South Korean prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation against makers of the products.

The company changed the name of its local unit to Reckitt Benckiser Korea in 2014.

Reckitt Benckiser's global brands include Dettol antiseptic wash and Durex condoms.

Monday's apology follows a written statement last month by the local unit of the company for failing to communicate more quickly with victims and their families.