Global Asbestos Congress 2000

ASBESTOS PROBLEMS IN KOREA: HISTORY AND CURRENT SITUATION

DOMYUNG PAEK, MD, SCD
School of Public Health, Seoul National University

The above Congress presentation is also available in PDF format, based on the paper reproduced below:

The History of the Asbestos Industry
Asbestos has been mined in Korea since the 1930's under Japanese control. At that time, asbestos was used mainly for the ship-building industry and the Japanese navy was the main consumer. Over two dozen mines were operating under the Japanese occupation which ended at 1945. One of them which was located at Kwang-Chun, Korea, was the largest chrysotile mine in Asia with more than 1000 miners. At that time, all men had to go into the army for World War II, but if they worked at the mine they were exempt from the conscription.

After the withdrawal of the Japanese from the Korean Peninsula, the production of asbestos dropped steeply (Table 1). Almost negligible amounts were mined. However, with the introduction of economic development plans in Korea since 1960's, asbestos consumption has increased again. Especially production of slate and other asbestos containing construction materials increased markedly following the nationwide renovation campaign of traditional houses in the countryside. With this as a signal, asbestos imports, as well as domestic mining, have increased steadily (Table 2).

Table 1. Amount of asbestos mined in Korea by year (metric tons, MT)
Year Amount Year Amount Year Amount Year Amount Year
1944 4,815 57 96 67 2,388 77 6,180 87
45 1,303 58 22 68 - 78 13,616 88
46-49 - 59 88 69 6,515 79 14,804 89
50 46 60 740 70 1,513 80 9,854 90
51 46 61 341 71 - 81 13,614 91
52 46 62 1,333 72 - 82 15,933 92
53 46 63 2,037 73 - 83 12,506 93
54 46 64 1,402 74 - 84 8,062 94
55 66 65 1,710 75 4,345 85 4,703
56 54 66 687 76 4,762 86 2,983  
Total               145,533

- : unknown
Sources: Mineral year book (U.S.A., 1944-1992), Korean Mineral year book (1970-1993), Yearbook of Korean Corporation of Mine Development (1980-1993), Report of Energy and Resource Institute, Mining and Manufacturing Statistical Report, Ministry of Economic Planning, Bureau of Statistics, Census Report of Mining and Manufacturing Industries (1958), Year book of Korean Industry and Commerce Bank, Korean Geological Report, Japanese Colonial Office of Korea, Bureau of Geological Survey (1941), A study on Korean Mines (1944), Report on Korean Mines (1941- 45), Japanese Colonial Office of Korea.

Table 2. Amount of asbestos imported and exported by year
Year Amount(MT) Year Amount(MT)
  Import Export   Import Export
1976 74,206 16 1986 68,017 0
1977 70,255 75 1987 77,598 41
1978 48,898 10 1988 87,470 0
1979 58,610 8 1989 77,475 0
1980 36,787 30 1990 74,549 0
1981 53,787 40 1991 88,753 157
1982 44,038 12 1992 95,476 23
1983 60,896 0 1993 82,854 18
1984 59,693 0 1994 83,276 0
1985 57,143 17 1995 88,722 0
total       1,216,505 447

Sources: Korean Mineral year book, Yearbook of Korean Corporation of Mine Development, Statistics of Import and Export (1974-1993), Ministry of Economic Planning, Bureau of Statistics, Bureau of Statistics in Korea, Yearbook of Commerce Statistics (1974-1993), Bureau of Taxation

There have been three major uses of asbestos in Korea. Besides the manufacturing of construction materials, asbestos textiles and brake-lining production are the other two industries. These three industries have accounted for more than 95% of usage of raw asbestos fibers in Korea (Table 3)

Table 3. Consumption of imported asbestos by type of industry (MT (%))
Year Construction1 Friction2 Textile3 Others4 Total
1976 71,312(96.1) 1,484(2.0) 1,113(1.5) 297(0.4) 74,206
1981 48,032(89.3) 3,926( 7.3) 1,399(2.6) 430(0.8) 53,787
1985 49,143(86.0) 4,686( 8.2) 2,685(4.7) 629(1.1) 57,143
1990 61,354(82.3) 7,828(10.5) 4,100(5.5) 1,267(1.7) 74,549
1993 68,189(82.3) 8,700(10.5) 4,226(5.1) 1,740(2.1) 82,854

1 Construction: asbestos slate, asbestos board, asbestos tile, asbestos papers, etc.
2 Friction: brake linings and pads etc.
3 Textile: asbestos yarn, thread, ropes, cords, packing, clothing, etc.
4 Others: gasket, paper, paint, etc.

Manufacturing of brake-lining and other friction materials had started in Korea around mid-1960's with the opening of automobile assembly plants. At first, used asbestos fabrics, especially those discarded from ship-repairing processes, were used as the raw materials. Quite soon, the consumption of asbestos by this industry increased with the growth of automobile manufacturing industries until the early 1990's. As developed nations began to ban the use of asbestos brake linings for small automobiles from the early 1990's, the use of asbestos for brake lining in Korea also was cut back.

The third major asbestos industry in Korea, that is asbestos textile manufacturing, had started in the early 1970's. This was because of the tightening of safety and health regulations in developed countries, especially Japan and Germany. "Rex-Asbest", one of the largest asbestos textile companies from Germany started operations in Korea in the early 1970's and several Japanese textile companies moved over to the southern part of Korea just after the 1974 enactment of the Japanese Occupational Safety and Health Act. At that time no special precautions were exercised about asbestos in Korea. Even though a workers' health examination program had been instituted in 1963 in Korea, no specific screenings such as spirometry and full-size chest X-ray were employed. The first measurement of asbestos fiber in Korea was attempted only after the mid-1980's. The measurement results showed that overall the asbestos textile industry was the dustiest one in Korea (Table 4).

Table 4. Airborne asbestos fiber concentrations by year and type of industry
GMGM (fibers/cc
  19841 19872 19883 19894 19915 19926 19937 1994 1996
Friction 1.70 - - 0.42 0.68 0.19 0.10 0.67 0.55
Textile 6.70 4.4 ~ 5.9 2.57 0.49 ~ 2.0 3.93 2.09 1.22 1.21 1.87
Asbestos bord - - - 1.04 - - - - -
Repair auto - - 2.45 - - - - -
Gasket - - - 0.05 - - - - -
Repair ship - - 2.45 - - - - - -
Shipbuilding - - - - - - - 0.02 -
Brakepads - - 0.35 - - - - - -
Rectification - - - - - 0.10 - - -

Sources: 19841: Ministry of Labor, National Institute of Labor Science. 19872: Dooyoung Park, Namwon Paik, Ministry of Labor, National Institute of Labor Science. 19833: Namwon Paik, Yongchul Shin. 19894: Namwon Paik, Korean Occupational Safety and Health Agency. 19915: Namwon Paik, Youngwhan Lee. 19926: Semin Oh, Dooyoung Paek, Yongchul Shin, Korean Occupational Safety and Health Agency. 19937: Korean Institute for Industrial Health.

The asbestos industries have been shrinking since the early 1990's in Korea. This is mainly because of the worsening economic environment, and partly due to the stricter regulations following social worries about hidden problems. As mentioned above, automobile manufacturers had to use non-asbestos friction materials to export cars to developed nations, and this brought the cut-back of asbestos usage in friction material manufacturing industries. At the same time, cheaper asbestos textiles could be imported from other developing countries such as China and Indonesia, and this resulted in transferring asbestos textile plants to those developing countries. As a result of these changes, the amount of imported asbestos friction materials and asbestos textiles has increased more than that of exported ones since the mid-1990's in Korea (Table 5). Before those changes in Korea, raw asbestos fibers were imported, while more fabricated asbestos products were exported.

Table 5. Asbestos-containing materials imported/exported by year and type of industry (tons)
Year Construction1 Friction2 Textile3
  Import Export Import Export Import Export
1964 0.4 0 0 0 0 0
1965 0.7 0 0 0 0 0
1966 0.7 0 0 0 0 0
1967 0.4 0 0 0 0.3 0
1968 0.3 0 0 0 0.3 0
1969 430.2 0 17.6 0 658.3 0
1970 108.6 0 11.2 0 713 32.3
1971 64.5 23.5 35.4 0 990.1 101.4
1972 507.4 94.2 17.6 162 6,583 387.4
1973 630 5,619 7.8 8.8 32.6 0
1974 715.2 1,722 5.7 50.2 85.5 0
1976 1,221 12,042 16.4 33 51 0
1977 1,511.8 6,634 169 16 253.9 659
1978 2,239 26,682 26.9 8.9 168.3 714
1979 2,239 6,759 34 8.6 44 1,374
1980 2,437 3,598 21 123 10.6 1,375
1981 5,943 38,952 19.6 149.2 86 12,260
1982 3,879 480 34 191 21.9 1,266
1983 4,943 870 48 160.3 34.5 633
1984 2,148 1,748 41 32.4 33.8 1,462.8
1985 3,929 1,310 53 56 30.1 1,766.8
1986 1,758.6 2,831 91 351 153.1 1,746.7
1987 2,562.1 2,385 273 892 17 1,893
1988 718 1,286.3 439 755 838.1 2,952
1989 2,996.5 1,214.8 466 692 918.3 2,364
1990 3,896.8 710.1 302 331 3,016 1,676
1991 4,086.3 1,395 317 259 2,089.1 1,528
1992 4,095.6 732.7 360 480 2,664 1,201
1993 4,133.5 1,099 580 319 1,636.7 996
Total 58,032.3 129,959.5 3,395.2 5,116.4 21,238.7 36,388.4

1 Construction: asbestos slate, asbestos board, asbestos tile, asbestos papers, etc.
2 Friction: brake linings and pads etc.
3 Textile: asbestos yarn, thread, ropes, cords, packing, clothing etc
Sources: Statistics of Import and Export (1964-1993), Bureau of Statistics in Korea, Yearbook of Industrial Production (1975-1993), Bureau of Statistics in Korea.

Health Problems Associated with Asbestos Use
The first asbestos victim in Korea was identified in 1993, when a former asbestos textile female worker was diagnosed with mesothelioma at the age of 46. She gave up working at the asbestos textile factory a year before the final diagnosis due to the worsening pain. Because she had been working at only one company for 19 years, and mesothelioma was a rare cancer, job exposure was rather easily suspected as a cause of her disease after the final diagnosis. Since then, five more mesothelioma cases were referred for workmen's compensation. However, their exposures to asbestos involved work at ship-building, boiler and mechanics, serpentine mines, or construction sites, and none of these five cases worked in primary asbestos industries, such as manufacturing of construction materials, brake linings or asbestos textiles.

In Korea, about 40 to 50 mesothelioma cases are reported annually through the cancer registry (Table 6). Considering the fact that not all cancer cases are diagnosed or reported at major participating hospitals, the annual incidence of mesothelioma among the general population in Korea stays around 1- 2 cases per million. The sex distribution is almost even with equal numbers of mesothelioma cases among men and women.

Table 6. Mesothelioma cases among Cancer Registry cases by year
Year Total No of Cancer Registry Cases (A) Mesothelioma Cases (B) B/A (%)
1983 23771 12 0.05
1984 21381 18 0.08
1985 28679 18 0.06
1986 36175 28 0.08
1987 32449 27 0.08
1988 42135 36 0.09
1990 50078 44 0.09
1991 51730 23 0.04
1993 59150 57 0.10
1994 60911 37 0.06
1995 64761 40 0.06
1996 72323 44 0.06
1997 78797 58 0.07
1998 76868 48 0.06

Lung cancer is the fastest growing cancer in Korea, and over the last 15 years the mortality has increased more than 3 times (Table 7). Nowadays, it has become the third most common cancer among Koreans, just next to stomach and liver cancers.

Among these lung cancers, 4 cases were referred for workmen's compensation up to now. Their work history included exposures as underground facility keepers, foundry workers, auto mechanics and maintenance workers. Similar to the cases with mesothelioma, none of the lung cancer cases worked in primary asbestos industries. This number is far too short of potential asbestos cases in Korea, considering the fact that up to a 1:4 ratio can be expected between mesothelioma and lung cancer cases due to asbestos exposures.

When the occupations of lung cancer victims among men were analyzed over the years, professionals, service and sales workers, plant and machine operators, and laborers were the groups with fast increasing numbers, while senior officials, technicians, craft and related trade workers, and house workers showed little or no increase over the period (Table 8).

As for the women, service and sales workers were one of the fast increasing groups (Table 9). These analyses suggest that occupational activities are linked with the increase in lung cancer, especially for men, and asbestos exposures among plant and machine operators and laborers should deserve further attention in the near future in Korea.

Table 7. Lung cancer mortality in Korea by sex
year Total Male Female
Lung Cancer Death (No) Mortality (/100,000) Lung Cancer Death (No) Mortality (/100,000) Lung Cancer Death (No) Mortality (/100,000)
1983 2140 5.8 1517 8.2 623 3.4
1984 2329 6.0 1720 8.9 609 3.2
1985 2888 8.3 2147 12.0 741 4.4
1986 3259 9.6 2416 13.8 843 5.2
1987 3561 10.4 2684 15.3 877 5.3
1988 4098 11.8 3054 17.1 1044 6.2
1989 4590 13.2 3470 19.3 1120 6.7
1990 5028 14.4 3761 20.8 1267 7.7
1991 5532 15.2 4225 22.0 1307 7.7
1992 6671 16.9 4980 24.4 1691 9.0
1993 7325 17.4 5456 25.4 1869 9.1
1994 8196 18.8 6137 28.0 2059 9.5
1995 8546 18.9 6377 28.1 2169 9.6
1996 8890 19.4 6613 28.7 2277 10.0
1997 9566 20.8 7070 30.5 2496 10.9


Table 8. Lung cancer cases among males by occupation
1983-1997 (Year) 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Male Total 1049 1126 1430 1556 1697 1875 2055 2169 2409 2711 2815 3076 2995 3102 3147
1 Senior Officials 29 42 30 30 36 42 33 53 45 64 17 21 11 10 25
2 Professionals 0 0 0 5 4 3 8 9 14 13 55 67 56 67 88
3 Technicians 81 97 109 126 141 153 158 165 205 192 66 34 58 25 88
4 Clerk 131 113 149 156 196 184 196 210 206 245 144 167 219 252 231
5 Service and Sales 7 7 10 12 21 24 34 35 40 79 311 343 344 403 366
6 Agriculture/Fishery 351 372 490 504 490 588 640 652 760 842 905 1011 959 925 950
7 Craft/ Related Trade 107 110 143 154 178 216 231 255 293 426 289 343 268 281 258
8 Plant/Machine Op 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 86 89 187 101 95
9 Laborers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 126 168 199 187 174
10 House Workers 340 391 496 561 594 658 747 781 811 820 773 820 726 815 855
11. Soldiers 3 4 3 6 4 4 3 5 6 5 11 8 14 1 6
12. Unknown 0 0 0 1 33 3 5 4 29 25 32 9 44 35 11


Table 9. Lung cancer cases among females by occupation
1983-1997 (Year) 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997
Female Total 398 391 452 496 508 571 591 654 633 803 795 867 811 828 933
1 Senior Officials 1 1 3 2 2 5 4 2 7 4 0 0 0 0 0
2 Professionals 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 6 9 9 7 9
3 Technicians 5 4 3 6 8 3 16 6 7 11 4 2 1 2 9
4 Clerk 8 9 13 14 10 15 9 28 17 26 5 6 6 10 12
5 Service and Sales 0 1 1 4 2 0 4 7 3 8 45 40 27 40 50
6 Agriculture/Fishery 70 77 72 73 73 94 84 104 88 131 140 134 159 141 133
7 Craft/ Related Trade 3 6 1 8 3 9 7 8 6 12 7 11 6 13 9
8 Plant/Machine Op 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 1 0
9 Laborers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 6 9 5 13
10 House Workers 311 293 358 389 393 442 464 497 499 607 576 656 576 594 692
11. Soldiers 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
12. Unknown 0 0 0 0 17 3 3 2 6 3 7 3 17 15 6

Asbestosis screening was attempted in 1993 among asbestos textile workers in Korea. Among those who had been screened, about 3% showed compatible chest x-ray findings with asbestosis, and half of them also had restrictive lung function changes. There was a clear dose response relationship when the groups were divided according to tenure. No workers with less than 10 years of tenure showed abnormal chest findings, while 8% of those with 20 or more years of work showed abnormal chest xray findings (Table 10).

Table 10. Prevalence of asbestosis according to exposure duration among asbestos workers
Tenure Asbestosis Cases1 Probable Asbestosis2 Possible Asbestosis3
0 - 9 0% (0/82) 0% (0/82) 0% (0/82)
10 - 14 0% (0/15) 7% (1/15) 7% (1/15)
15 - 19 6% (1/16) 6% (1/15) 13% (2/16)
20 - 4% (1/26) 8% (2/26) 23% (6/26)
Total 1.4% (2/139) 2.9% (4/139) 6.5% (9/139)

1. Asbestosis: over 1/0 profusion according to ILO classification with compatible lung function tests
2. Probable Asbestosis: over 1/0 profusion according to ILO classification without compatible lung function tests
3. Possible Asbestosis: 0/1 profusion according to ILO classification or other compatible pleural findings

Current Regulations and Potential Problems
At present, crocidolite and amosite are banned and only chrysotile is allowed for use in the manufacturing of asbestos products. Employers are required by the Industrial Health and Safety Act of Korea to provide health and safety measures for employees when they make asbestos products directly with raw asbestos fibers.

However, those industries which use, install, or remove asbestos products, such as construction, insulation, mechanics or maintenance works are exempt from providing specific health and safety measures for asbestos. Even though most of the compensated mesothelioma and lung cancer cases up to now in Korea have worked in these industries, we have no idea about the numbers exposed or level of exposures among these workers.

Asbestos products are currently sold at hardware stores in Korea without any particular warning or material safety and data sheets. No one single specific provision such as a campaign or educational program has been made to protect employees at hardware stores and their customers who buy and use asbestos products.

The other pitfall of current regulation is that only current employees at the covered worksite can be reached by the health and safety programs. Once they leave the workplace, it is hard to follow them or keep registers updated. Neither employers nor employees are interested in providing or receiving health and safety programs because of entangled economic and other privacy issues.