No more soft-soaping

“HARMLESS to humans”, assured the slogan on humidifier disinfectants sold to South Koreans in the early 2000s by Oxy, a local unit of Reckitt Benckiser, an Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods company. A widening criminal investigation by South Korea’s government into dozens of cases of lung disease, some of them fatal, suggests the opposite. It is now examining compensation claims by another 750 victims, on top of the 530 lodged since 2011.

Chemical sanitisation in homes and offices is prized as a sign of the country’s rapid progress since its economic take-off in the 1980s lifted millions from squalor and disease. Killing germs, says Lee Duck-hwan, a professor of chemistry and communication at Sogang University in Seoul, became the “single most important topic of daily discussions” in the 1980s. Since then, everything from baby soap to washing machines has claimed to act as a steriliser—something Mr Lee decries as “phobia marketing”. So it is a particular blow when it turns out that products which should improve cleanliness might do harm.

The government suspended sales of the...Continue reading