Korean Asbestos Ban: The First Step
In the current global scenario, where more than 30 countries continue to use in excess of 500 tonnes of asbestos per year, it is tempting to think of a national asbestos ban as the happy-ever-after ending. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As we are seeing in Korea, the fact that a country has prohibited the future use of asbestos does not eradicate the harm caused by past usage. Last month, extensive contamination of an elementary school in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province resulted in a temporary closure of the premises.1 Shortly before that discovery was made, Korean campaigners revealed that crushed asbestos-contaminated rock was being used by Hyundai Steel, a leading steelmaker in Korea, to remove impurities during the production process in its Korean plants. It has been estimated that up to 5,000 Hyundai workers are receiving hazardous exposures from this practice.2
Clearly, the Korean legislation banning asbestos was not enough to ensure that hazardous exposures were brought to an end. Yeyong Choi, Director of the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health, Korea explains:
In South Korea, asbestos has been a banned substance, in the last four to five years. Yet despite the ban, it is still being used, which not many people are aware of. For example, it is often contained in imported materials. Yet the problem is that the government bodies that should monitor and check this aspect are not doing so properly. Also the law banning the use of asbestos has lots of loopholes, such as exemptions for products naturally containing asbestos The (contaminated) material is still present and at risk of being released when remodeling/renovation is being done, such as for houses, offices, factories But now, there is no information on which buildings still have asbestos in them! 3
The existence of administrative and legislative loopholes contributes to an unsatisfactory state of affairs in which asbestos-containing products enter the stream of commerce despite the ban, human exposures to naturally-occurring asbestos persist and unsafe working practices continue to endanger the health of building workers and tradesmen.4 Despite laws such as the Asbestos Relief Act and the Safety Control Act, victims remain marginalized; compensation provided by the State is insufficient and fulfilling the criteria to qualify for aid is not easy, especially for victims of environmental exposure.5 The ban implemented in Korea in 2009 was indeed a great victory; more work remains to be done.
September 14, 2011
1 Jeong-ju N. Large amount of asbestos found in elementary school. August 26, 2011.
2 Kazan-Allen L. Hyundai Steel: A Corporate Criminal.
Kazan-Allen L. Victory for Activists in Korea. August 12, 2011.
4 Current Trends of Asbestos Regulations in South Korea.
5 Kazan-Allen L. Korean Asbestos Relief Law. April 2, 2011.