Proper supervision of chemicals could have prevented ‘murders’ by humidifier disinfectant

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in <Kyunghyang Shinmun> on April 16, 2013, reporting the government’s failure in so-called ‘humidifier disinfectant’ incident where presumably hundreds of people, mostly babies and infants, died due to lung damage from the inhalation toxicity of humidifier disinfectants’ raw material. What’s more surprising and infuriating is that no one was properly indicted or charged for the disheartening losses since proper investigation of it has been hampered by government’s intentional avoidance on this matter. All rights regarding this post stay with the author(s) of the original article or with <Kyunghyang Shinmun> and this post will be scrapped immediately at their request. In the post, I tried to match the English translation of names of people / institution(s) / position(s) to authentic one(s) as much as possible but, unfortunately, some of them still can be different. Original article of this post (in Korean) can be found in the link at the bottom.

Reporter Yoon-kyeong Song 송윤경 기자

Korean Agency for Technology and Standards (KATS) did not verify product safety during approval procedure

Maleficence information was not shared between raw material manufacturers and product manufacturers

The ‘humidifier disinfectant’ incidence that claimed hundreds of victims could have been prevented from the start. But the product manufacturers who ignored the toxicity of chemicals and government who was lax on supervision ignored the chances over and over.

In 1994, newspapers reported that a company developed a humidifier disinfectant for the first time. At that time, the company said “According to our toxicity experiment, it’s not harmful to human body.” But, consequently, at least 10 (by Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, KCDCP) and 112 (by Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, ACCEH) died because of the ‘world first’ humidifier disinfectant. What was going on at government ministries and manufacturers during that time?

When the humidifier disinfectant was first approved as a commercial product, it was KATS of Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MTIE) who was in responsible for it.

MTIE said “What we approved was not a humidifier disinfectant. It was a detergent.” Mr. Pil-goo Kim, MTIE director of Product Safety Policy, said “At that time, the manufacturer notified it as a detergent and we approved it as so. We did not approve it as a disinfectant.” but, to our question of who is in charge of approval and supervision for disinfectants, replied “I don’t know.” But KCDCP said “Detergents and disinfectants are practically identical. It’s preposterous that disinfectants are out of KATS’s remit of approval.” Safety review mechanism was practically absent from the beginning and consumers could not help but to be blinded by commercial quips like ‘Korea first’ or ‘World first’.

There was another opportunity that could have prevented the tragedy of humidifier disinfectant. According to a paper ‘Fatal misuse of humidifier disinfectants in Korea’ by Dr. Jong-hyun Lee (Neo & Biz Institute), who participates in KCDCP investigation committee of lung damage, US Environment Protection Agency (US EPA) released a toxicity evaluation report of MIT material (base material for humidifier disinfectant) in 1998 and contents regarding inhalation toxicity were in it. During a phone call with Kyunghyang Shinmun, Dr. Lee said “In US, this material is controlled like an agricultural pesticide and US government requires manufacturers to report it regularly and determines whether to reuse it or not” and explained “a toxicity experiment result is referred in that report saying that microscopic lesions were identified near noses of white rats that inhaled it.”

Dr. Lee explained “That lesion was different from current problem of lung damage and the report said it was fine below certain level of concentration. But, since experimental white rat and human are different on many things like sensitivity to chemicals, no one knows (how people will react to humidifier disinfectants).” US EPA’s 1998 report could have been a kind of ‘warning’ to our government that supervises chemicals and their manufacturers.

How significant was the report to manufacturers then? Avoiding direct answer to our question whether it reviewed the report or not, Aekyung who made ‘humidifier mate’ out of CMIT/MIT said “We bought raw material from SK Chemical Inc. and they said that the safety of that material had been confirmed over 100 clinical tests.” SK Chemical Inc. said “It is hard to check if we reviewed US EPA’s report then but its safety was confirmed by a US institution.” But, to our question about the institution, it said “under verification.”

MTIE was not different from others in viewing the inhalation toxicity report lightly. MTIE said “All chemicals are more or less toxic. The problem is whether they are harmful to human body or not and that should be the remit of Ministry of Environment’s expertise. We never heard anything from MOE.”

Experts say it is only in Korea where humidifier disinfectants are popularized. According to a last year’s paper titled “Humidifier disinfectant incident and its lessons’ by Ye-yong Choi, Heung-kyu Lim, Shin-ye Lim, Do-myung Baek in Journal of Korean Society of Environmental Health, no case has been reported in other countries that use humidifier disinfectants as household items yet. That is why Dr. Lee’s remark that “if it had been in developed countries like US or Europe, any attempts to manufacture and sell humidifier disinfectants like those done in Korea could have been blocked (by government)” is so poignant.

Even government admits its laxity on safety supervision on chemicals. Answering to Progressive Justice Party Rep. Sang-jung Shim’s inquiry on laws on registry, evaluation, and management of chemicals, MOE confessed “accidents could have been prevented beforehand if toxicity information on humidifier disinfectants was shared between chemicals manufacturers (raw material manufacturers) and their users (product manufacturers). After all, the creation of ‘humidifier disinfectant’ monster makes us realize the big hole in present status of chemicals management in Korea in the most tragic way.



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