‘Humidifier disinfectant’ damages, ‘None of our business’, say government ministries

Disclaimer: The following is a totally unauthoritative personal translation of an article appeared in <Kyunghyang Shinmun> on April 18, 2013, reporting government’s late and half-hearted response to humidifier disinfectant incident since two years ago. 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.


Reporters Yoon-kyeong Song & Ki-beom Kim 송윤경·김기범 기자 kyung@kyunghyang.com


‘Big gap’ in relief actions due to chronic bureaucracy


Two years have passed since people got sick and died of lung damages due to humidifier disinfectants day after day. But, since then, victims lost their jobs and were squeezed down by staggering hundreds of millions of wons in hospital bills with no compensation or relief in sight. And Korean bureaucracy to dump responsibilities to others and to hide behind half-hearted interpretation of law was behind all the mess that failed to properly investigate damages and to institute relief measures.


Remit of responsibility for approval and supervision was hazy from the beginning when humidifier disinfectants were introduced in 1994 in Korea for the first time in the world. Korean Agency for Technology and Standards (KATS) of Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MTIE) is in charge of safety management for all commercial products. In fact, some humidifier disinfectants was marketed with Korea Certification mark of KATS.


But Mr. Pil-goo Kim, MTIE director of product safety policy, said “Those products were declared as detergents to wipe humidifiers.” To the fact that they were sold as ‘humidifier disinfectants’, he said “We looked at their declared function as detergents only.”


As victims piled up in 2011, Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) belatedly carried out epidemiological examination and toxicity experiment. But MOHW also argued about whether the matter was within their remit or not. After accepting additional damage claims from victims, they launched a joint lung damage investigation committee with experts from academia but declined the committee’s request for extra supplementary investigation arguing that “there is no legal ground to support it.” MOHW thinks it should be supported by Ministry of Environment (MOE) who is in charge of chemical products.


But MOE also shuns away from the matter. Ms. Eun-hee Jo, section chief of chemical materials, said “There is no legal ground (to support extra supplementary investigation) in the Toxic Chemicals Control Act (TCCA).” MOE Environment and Health Committee’s last December decision not to consider humidifier disinfectant damage as ‘environmental disease’ in TCCA provoked another controversy. If it had been considered as environmental disease, victims could have been compensated first without any legal procedure but the committee interpreted the law narrowly and said ‘those cases were not diseases due to an exposure to harmful materials in specific area’.


Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) who should have quarterbacked the matter among ministries also acted perfunctorily. In November 2011, Prime Minister Hwang-sik Kim mentioned the humidifier disinfectant incident at the cabinet meeting and asked “quick and proactive response.” But PMO interpreted the directive only in terms of managing chemicals in the future. Rep. Ha-na Chang, Unified Democratic Party, said “PMO never held a inter-ministry meeting to discuss about relief measures for victims.” After all, an administration gap to relieve victims has been ever widening while ministries try hard to put out reasons to constrict their remits of responsibility to the narrowest. National Assembly Health and Welfare Committee belatedly passed the ‘resolution to relieve humidifier disinfectant victims’ to support victims with living hardships first.


link: http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?artid=201304182224435&code=940701


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