In South Korea, Asbestos Compensation Comes Too Late

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Members of a civic group advocating the abolition of asbestos in South Korea collect soil samples from the playground of Susan Elementary School on Feb. 12, 2009

Choi Hyung-Sik recalls the stampede of bulldozers throughout the 1980s that demolished his neighborhood in Gwangmyeong, a town to the southwest of Seoul. A security guard at an apartment complex, every day for nearly a decade Choi wheezed through a cloud of thick dust, parching his throat with a layer of sand. He suspected it wasn't doing his lungs any good either, but no word came from authorities to the contrary. The high-rise apartments being built were the future of South Korea; why hinder them by imposing fiddly regulations requiring developers to tell residents of the widely known dangers of inhaling that dust? "There was no warning. The authorities told us nothing," Choi laments, who now suffers from malignant mesothelioma, an extremely rare cancer in his lung lining that typically kills its victims one year after diagnosis.

The unfettered urbanization that transformed South Korea's cities between the 1960s and 1980s ignored a hazard now proving lethal for South Koreans living around construction sites, mines, and shipyards: asbestos, the cancer-causing mineral mined heavily in that country for construction materials until the 1980s. Choi is one victim; by inhaling that dust, doctors said, he was exposed to asbestos, which usually takes more than 20 years — and sometimes up to 50 — to show its carcinogenic effects.

Unfortunately, he is far from alone. The number of South Korean patients reporting asbestos-related illnesses, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis, is small, but on the rise. In 2007, the most recent year that data is available, 55 new cases of malignant mesothelioma were reported out of South Korea's 48.5 million people — in public health terms, a notable increase over 2001, when there were only 12 reported cases, says Paek Dom-yung, an occupational medicine professor at Seoul National University. Lung cancer, another illness sometimes caused by asbestos exposure, has also reached an all-time high in mortality in South Korea, with about 14,000 deaths each year.

That growing number is particularly worrisome for public health officials who are now having to answer for government policy that ignored asbestos' health risk for years. While the production and use of asbestos has been tightly regulated or banned in most developed Western democracies since the 1980s, Seoul didn't put into effect a full ban of the manufacture, import and use of asbestos until last year. While in other nations, building developers have long been required to hire government-approved consultants to remove asbestos from demolition sites to reduce exposure to nearby residents, the South Korean government skirted around scientists' warnings for decades, knocking down buildings containing the deadly mineral despite the fact that no South Korean company had been approved by the government to safely remove asbestos.

Now, for the first time, lawmakers expect to pass regulations this month that will require the government and developers to reimburse victims. "The government can't avoid these criticisms," says Kim Sang-hee, a National Assembly member affiliated with the opposition Democratic Party, who sits on the environmental committee. "It didn't take proper measures earlier on, even though there were strong appeals from many environmental organizations [for the ban and reimbursement] in the early 2000s."

Even though the government outlawed some types of asbestos in 1997, the increasing number of victims throughout the 2000s prompted labor unions and public health experts to push for a full ban and for reimbursement measures, which they argued was long overdue. They pointed to epidemics in several communities around former asbestos factories and mines, mostly located in the city of Busan at the southeastern tip of the peninsula, and in Chung-Cheong, a province on the west coast. In campaigns last year held by the Korean Federation of Construction Industry Trade Unions, an umbrella group of unions that runs a clinic for asbestos victims, 5,000 laborers, asbestos victims and activists signed a petition asking for reimbursement from the government, a key move that brought the issue more into the public eye after it was ignored for several years.

Critics say the debacle in South Korea foreshadows problems for rising Asian powers — such as China, India and Indonesia — which continue to mine asbestos heavily mostly for domestic use despite its proven cancerous effects. China continues to be the second largest producer and consumer of asbestos in the world, behind only Russia. "There will be large problems with these countries if they don't regulate asbestos more thoroughly," says Paek, who also pins some blame on Canada, which continues to export large quantities of the mineral to poor Asian countries, whereas the provincial government of Quebec has spent millions of dollars removing asbestos from its own schools and hospitals.

For many years, asbestos was considered a miracle mineral for building skyscrapers and military weapons, thanks to its cheapness and durability. The substance was first mined on the South Korean peninsula under Japanese rule in the 1920s, using it to build warships until World War II. After the Korean War left the peninsula split in into a north and south in 1953, South Korea, then one of the poorest countries in the world and seeking to industrialize, resumed mining asbestos in 1960. Consumption of the mineral peaked in the 1980s, but soon thereafter domestic companies moved their operations to China and India, where mining was cheaper and more scantily regulated. "At the time of South Korea's industrialization, there were many reports of the health dangers of asbestos," says Paek. "If we were careful enough, we could have had that information, and had found different ways of using asbestos."

Meanwhile, because of its latency period of 20 years or more after exposure, South Korea should be bracing itself for asbestos-related illnesses to become more pervasive in the coming years, says Kim Hyoung-ryoul, a medical professor at the Catholic University of Korea. Asbestos-related illnesses are expected to increase substantially until around 2030, say public health experts, and South Korea lacks the specialized facilities and experts to identify and treat these once-rare disorders. Reimbursement is just the start of a long campaign — one that the key players should have recognized earlier, many say. "The effort is appreciated, but the warnings about asbestos have simply come too late." says Choi, the security guard.