(Beyond Pesticides, October 19, 2016) Reckitt Benckiser, the company that fought tooth and nail to keep its highly toxic d-CON ® anticoagulant rodenticides on the market in the U.S., has recently issued an apology for another product of theirs that is responsible for the deaths of pregnant women and children in Korea: humidifier disinfectants. According to The Wall Street Journal, 189 deaths and 506 injuries from humidifier disinfectants, primarily Reckitt Benckiser’s humidifier disinfectant, Oxy Sac Sac (Oxy). The main ingredient in the sanitizers found to be toxic is polyhexamethylene guanidine phosphate, or PHMG.
In a statement on Wednesday, September 21, Reckitt Benckiser CEO Rakesh Kapoor offered his “deepest sympathy” for “the pain and the irreparable damage suffered by many families.” The apology was made during a visit with Oxy victims and families, as well as representatives of the Korean National Assembly Special Committee at the Company’s headquarters in Slough, UK.
Hazards associated with the humidifier disinfectants were first discovered in 2011 when seven pregnant women were hospitalized with acute respiratory disease, resulting in four deaths from lung failure. Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC) led an investigation that found that the chemicals used to clean humidifiers were to blame, and the Korean government recalled six humidifier disinfectant products from the market nationwide, while recommending against the use of other similar products and ordered a voluntary recall in 2011.
According to The Wall Street Journal, the company commissioned Seoul National University, Hoseo University and Korea Conformity Laboratories to test its humidifier disinfectant, and privately hired two researchers from the universities as consultants. The company then purportedly rejected test results showing its products were unsafe, bribed the researchers to create favorable results and ignored toxicity warnings about its product in 2000, according to the Journal. Former CEOs and officials at Reckitt Benckiser Korea were charged in May and fined for and evading necessary toxicity tests before introducing it to market in South Korea in 2001, falsely advertising their product as “safe for humans.”
Reckitt Benckiser’s humidifier disinfectants are not sold outside of South Korea, however the multi-national company has a history of selling products that are known to be hazardous to children. In the U.S., Reckitt Benckiser, well known as the manufacturer of d-CON mouse and rat control products, refused to adopt EPA safety standards despite known health and safety risks.
Between 1993 and 2008, the American Association of Poison Control Centers logged somewhere in the range of 12,000 to 15,000 reports of rat and mouse poison exposures each year for children under the age of six. These numbers and other concerns about pet and non-target wildlife exposures spurred EPA to renew its efforts to establish better protections for children and the environment. Children are particularly susceptible to these risks because they play on floors and explore by putting items in their mouths, which can include loose rat poisons like d-CON.
The company refused to abide by EPA’s 2013 cancellation order of 12 of its products for not meeting statutory risk mitigation measures established by the agency in 2008. These measures required that products be sold in bait stations and secured bait forms, instead of loose baits that children can more readily access, and not contain the most toxic and persistent active ingredients.
The company challenged EPA’s decision keeping products on shelves for over one year, even suing the state of California for enacting EPA’s order to remove the products from shelves. This was the first time in more than 20 years that a company declined to implement EPA risk mitigation measures for pesticide products. Eventually, Reckitt Benckiser agreed to phase out production of the products under question in June 2014, nearly eight years after EPA warned about the threats to children’s health, however existing stocks may continue to be sold at retail stores.
While Reckitt-Benckiser outlined a compensation plan to the victims and their family members in South Korea, and has vowed to review its safety process, no plans to remove the products from market have been identified. Meanwhile, major retailers in South Korea have stopped selling Reckitt Benckiser products, which also includes such popular brands as Durex condoms, Air Wick and Lysol. For more information, including victim’s stories and a timeline of the history of Reckitt Benckiser’s hazardous humidifier disinfectant in South Korea, see the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (ANROEV), a coalition of victims’ groups, trade unions and other labor groups across Asia, committed to the rights of Victims and for overall improvement of health and safety at the workplace.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.