The Korea Herald

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Experts advise consumer awareness, better safety scrutiny by state on biocide scare

By 임정요

Published : May 13, 2016 - 13:20

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The deaths and permanent bodily damage traced to humidifier disinfectants have loudly sounded alarms about what goes into making household cleaning products.

Experts are now calling on consumers to raise their safety awareness and pressing the government to intensively verify any potential harm before the products are marketed.

Participants in a boycott of goods from Oxy Reckitt Benckiser were growing, in both consumers and shops, after nearly 100 deaths were blamed on toxic chemicals that were in humidifier cleaners the South Korean unit of the company first marketed in 2001. The products were pulled off the shelves in 2011 after the unexplained deaths were belatedly linked to them by local health agencies.

An investigation so far has unraveled serious lapses by all parties, including the company neglecting needed tests for safety and the cover-up and twisting of reports that warned of possible harm.

Public fury and concern showed in sales at retailers. Lotte Mart said Friday that sales of bleach fell 22.6 percent between April 18 and May 3, when the Oxy Korea investigation was heading to a peak. Deodorants fell 16.8 percent in sales, as well as air fresheners (15 percent), fabric softeners (14.3 percent) and dehumidifiers (4.6 percent).

At E-Mart, sales of bleach fell 38 percent and dehumidifiers 44 percent in the April 18-May 11 period.

The pattern was the same at online shopping malls such as Auction and Ticket Monster, records showed.

Products based on more natural ingredients, on the other hand, like baking soda, saw sales rise 30 percent more.

Specialists in environmental safety advise consumer awareness in dealing with the growing fears.

"Non-pharmaceutical medical products have been verified for safety, so they can be used without concern," Lee Jong-hyun from environmental consulting firm EHR&C said. "Disinfectants and insecticides, however, are not yet included in pre-approval requirement, and they need caution in usage."

The National Institute of Environmental Research said it is important for consumers to be careful to use each product according to its intended usage and precautions. 

"Extra care is necessary for products that a human body can easily be exposed to, such as aerosols that can be breathed in," an official at the institute said.

The more fundamental step would be for the products to be scrutinized before marketing and in managing them. 

"There has to be a step through which the government or the manufacturer confirms without a doubt the safety of a product in order to eliminate any distrust," Lee at EHR&C said.

The Environment Ministry has said it will consider changing the biocide management system to concentrate on prior monitoring.

Products that cannot prove their safety would be removed from the market, and all new products would be tested before being made available to the public, the ministry said.

"It is necessary to test the risks and benefits of each product because a wide multitude of chemical substances are being used in everyday lives," said Kim Yong-hwa, a professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.  "Governing laws are unprepared and lack details, and it is basically up to the state and the National Assembly to set them right." (Yonhap)