Killing The Future: Asbestos Use In Asia

Asbestos Experiences of Asian Countries: Korea

Asbestos Experience in Korea

In January 2007, test results confirmed the presence of asbestos fibers in 14 stations50 on three lines of Seoul's subway system. The fibers were liberated from products used in the 1970s and 1980s for noise and heat insulation; whilst the use of asbestos-containing materials by the Seoul Metro company ceased in 2001, hazardous products already in situ, such as ceiling tiles, were not removed. Even though a spokesperson for the testing company, ETS Consulting, downplayed the risks saying that airborne asbestos in the stations was "below the permissible level," Seould Metro promised to decontaminate the stations and remove contaminated materials.

The asbestos in the subway is a legacy of nearly fifty years of asbestos use in Korea. The life cycle of the asbestos industry in Korea has had three distinct phases:

Expansion (1960-1982) The industry's expansion was fuelled by overseas investment, principally from Japan and German, with foreign companies transferring hazardous technologies abroad in light of increasing restrictions at home. Concurrently, Korean policies to stimulate the construction and manufacturing sectors boosted asbestos demand; the lack of any health and safety regulations meant companies were spared the expense of installing control measures or providing personal protective equipment for workers. As the asbestos textiles increased; these products required a higher quality of fiber and impart patterns reflected this shift in consumption.

Plateau (1983-1995) Although consumption was adversely affected by the introduction of the (Korean) industrial Safety and Health Act (1981), asbestos had not yet become a social issue.

Decline (1996-Present) As active regulation of hazardous working conditions began, Korean producers of asbestos textiles and brake linings relocated to China and other countries in Southeast Asia. The diagnosis of the fist case of mesothelioma in Korea (1994) brought the compensation issue to the fore and the removal of asbestos from old buildings and demolition sites became a social issue. As of August 2006, compensation had only been be paid to 35 mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer claimants most of whom were end-users such as construction and maintenance workers and welders. Korea is 15-20 years behind Japan in its national epidemic of asbestos-related disease. The situation in the subway,51 and similar incidents will contribute to the increase in asbestos mortality. Ironically, within weeks of the media coverage of the subway contamination, the Labor Ministry announced that an asbestos ban in Korea will take effect in 200952 This decision marks the beginning of the country's attempt to tackle its asbestos legacy; however, work is needed to address the following gaps:

Notes:

50. Affected stations: Line 2: Youngdeungpo Office, Hanyang University, Euljiro 1-go, Shinlim, City Hall, Sealleung, Bangbae, Sangwangsimni, Samsung, Bongrae, Mungrae, Nakseongdae, Seoul National University of Education and Seocho; Line 3: Chungmuro; Line 4: Sukmyung Woman's University and Sukmyung Woman's University (Donam). Asbestos Detected in 17 Subway Stations. The Chosun libo. January 23, 2007. Seoul Subway says it will remove asbestos. The Hankyoreh, January 26, 2007.
51. According to an editorial entitled Threat of Asbestos in the Korea Times on Jauary 23, 2007: "most of the stations have undergone major construction, installing elevators, ventilation or other facilities lately. A cold shiver runs down our spine when we consider the vast amount of dust poured on passengers during construction."
52. english.chosun.com

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