SEOUL • The head of a South Korean subsidiary of a British consumer goods company was slapped and shouted down as he apologised for his firm's role in selling a humidifier disinfectant blamed for more than 100 deaths in South Korea.
Shouting "too late" and "cannot forgive" in English, a handful of the victims' relatives rushed the podium where Mr Atar Safdar, the head of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser Korea, was speaking at a hotel in Seoul yesterday.
Mr Safdar was slapped and pushed several times as the event descended into chaos. He 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 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 home humidifiers.
Most of the victims were found to have used Oxy Ssak Ssak, a liquid humidifier disinfectant that Reckitt Benckiser sold in South Korea from 2001 until it was withdrawn in 2011. It has been blamed for 103 deaths, mostly women and children.
Other brands of humidifier disinfectants that have also been linked to deaths include Wiselect by Lotte Mart and Cefu.
"Oxy RB accepts responsibility for the role that Oxy RB products played and the delay in providing adequate remedy," Mr Safdar said.
He also announced the creation of a five billion won (S$5.9 million) fund to "provide assistance to those who have suffered". Oxy had earlier donated a similar amount to a fund set up by South Korea's Environment Ministry.
The company sells more than 120 household items and five medical products in South Korea, including sore throat lozenges Strepsils and antacid Gaviscon.
A boycott of Oxy products is spreading amid public anger that the firm has taken too long to apologise or accept any responsibility.
Last week, a group of some 3,000 pharmacists in Busan vowed to stop selling Oxy products as they urged the company to take social and moral responsibility.
In the case of Cefu, which is believed to have killed 14 people, prosecutors reportedly found that the company, Butterfly Effect, had manufactured the product without any professional knowledge.
The company head, surnamed Oh, reportedly told prosecutors last Thursday that he had obtained the manufacturing formula on the Internet and from research data.
Cefu contains a chemical known as PGH, which is thought to be more harmful than PHMG, the main ingredient in Oxy Ssak Ssak.
Two weeks ago, Lotte Mart made an official apology and said it would set aside 10 billion won to be used to compensate victims and their families. The government said 22 people have died from using Lotte's Wiselect.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK