British firm Reckitt Benckiser has apologised and has pledged to compensate hundreds of those killed or injured by deadly disinfectants it sold in South Korea.

The move came five years after the government ordered the company to remove the offending products from shelves for health risks.

Ataur Safdar, head of Reckitt Benckiser’s Korean division, said the company accepted responsibility and wanted to make amends.

He spoke at a news conference where he was interrupted by angry and tearful victims and family members who swore and hit him.

A teenager using an oxygen tank, and four other people who were apparently victims or their families, walked to the stage to confront Mr Safdar.

“Can you save the child? What are you going to do?” said a woman, in a scene broadcast live on television. 

“Why did it take so long?” a man said.

Mr Safdar said the company, based in Slough, Berkshire, will come up with a plan to compensate victims. 

It will also provide 10 billion won (€7.7 million) to a humanitarian fund for them, including €3.8m it had previously pledged.

He called the day “an important milestone in achieving progress for victims”.

However, the victims and families rejected the apology, appealing to the South Korean public to punish Reckitt Benckiser with a boycott.

In a press conference outside the prosecutors’ office, victims and campaigners lined up the products made by Reckitt Benckiser and asked the public not to buy them. 

The apology came as South Korean prosecutors were investigating Reckitt Benckiser and about a dozen other companies for selling or manufacturing unsafe disinfectants. 

Earlier the company had refused to take responsibility.

In a separate statement after the press conference, civic groups representing the victims said they planned to file a complaint against Rakesh Kapoor, the British company’s chief executive officer, and the company’s seven other board members, for failing to conduct safety tests before the disinfectants’ launch in 2001 and until sales were discontinued in 2011.

The victims have already filed a complaint against 10 disinfectant manufacturers and 19 companies that sold the products.

The health risks from the disinfectants came to light in 2011 with mysterious lung ailments that killed pregnant women. 

Later that year, authorities said the chemicals PHMG and PGH in the disinfectants that many South Korean households used to cleanse humidifiers were to blame.

Nearly all households in South Korea use a humidifier during the dry winter season. 

Most victims were children and pregnant women who had the most exposure to the chemicals emitted by their home humidifiers. 

South Korea’s government said it would compensate 221 confirmed victims, 95 of whom died. 

Another 309 people were denied government compensation on the grounds they had not proven their sicknesses were linked to the chemicals.

Civic groups said the government tally understates the number of victims. They estimate that the disinfectants killed 239 and injured 1,289. 

Officials are investigating and expect more applications for compensation.


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