SEOUL A large South Korean retailer stopped ordering Reckitt Benckiser items on Wednesday and some e-commerce sites halted sales of goods made by the British giant after its humidifier sterilizers were linked to deadly lung injuries.
During an emotional news conference on Monday in Seoul, the head of the company’s South Korean unit accepted responsibility, although some victims and their families and supporters said it came too late.
Ata Safdar, head of Reckitt Benckiser Korea and Japan, bowed several times in apology. As he spoke, a man stepped on to the stage shouting expletives and slapped him on the back of the neck.
South Korea said last year that 92 people were believed to have died from causes related to the humidifier products – not all of them made by Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, the former name of the group’s South Korean arm.
South Korea says 530 people registered claims of lung ailments from using humidifier sterilizers made by various companies. The government banned the products, which it believes were only sold in South Korea, in 2011.
Humidifiers are widely used in offices and homes across north Asia where the winters are dry. The sterilizers, added to keep the water fresh, can cause ailments when inhaled.
“This is not an issue just for the Korean branch and the victims but for the head of the main office to get on his knees and apologize to the victims,” Choi Ye-yong, who heads the Asian Citizens’ Centre for Environment and Health, told reporters on Wednesday.
Lotte Mart, part of Lotte Shopping and one of South Korea’s biggest discount stores, stopped ordering Reckitt Benckiser products from Wednesday, company spokesman Yoon Ji-yoon told Reuters.
Lotte Mart was among supermarket chains that sold since-banned humidifier sterilizers under its own brand, and last month made its own public apology.
South Korean e-commerce companies Coupang and Ticketmonster Inc said on Wednesday they would stop selling Reckitt Benckiser products. Its global brands include Dettol antiseptic wash and Durex condoms.
Choi and Kim Deok-jong, the father of a five-year-old boy who died in 2009 from lung disease linked by the South Korean government to the use of humidifier sterilizers, plan a protest at Thursday’s Reckitt Benckiser shareholders’ meeting in London, the activist group said.
Reckitt Benckiser spokeswoman Patty O’Hayer said in London the company respected everybody’s right to demonstrate.
“We have stepped up and acknowledged our responsibility in this tragedy and are working hard to make amends and to address the issues of all those who have been impacted,” she told Reuters by phone.
The company’s South Korea unit generated 2014 sales of 257 billion won ($223 million), according to online data citing NICE Information Service. Reckitt Benckiser Korea declined to provide local sales figures, although globally the group posted revenue of 8.87 billion pounds ($12.9 billion) in 2015.
“We have accepted full responsibility for the role that this product played in these health issues, including deaths, in Korea and while we acknowledge that we cannot repair the harm that has been done, we have stated our continuing intention to do whatever we can to provide full resolution to these cases,” Reckitt Benckiser said on its website after Monday’s apology.
According to Reckitt Benckiser, the humidifier sterilizer product was launched in South Korea in 1996 by Oxy, a company it bought in 2001 to form Oxy RB. The local company’s name was changed in 2014 to Reckitt Benckiser Korea.
South Korean prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into makers of the products.
(Additional reporting by Jee Heun Kahng in SEOUL and Martinne Geller in LONDON; Editing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie)