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Govt. likely to recognize asthma as damage in toxic humidifier disinfectant case

The government is likely to expand the scope of formal recognition of damage from toxic humidifier disinfectants to include asthma, Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung said Sunday.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Kim said a government panel dealing with the incident has almost reached a decision on the inclusion of asthma, a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways in the lung, as a side effect of the toxic humidifier disinfectants.

The humidifier sanitizer case, one of the worst scandals involving a consumer product using chemicals, came to light after four pregnant women died of lung problems from unknown causes in 2011. The case killed 73 South Koreans while affecting some 110 others here. The South Korean unit of British consumer giant Reckitt Benckiser, one of the manufacturers, is currently facing a series of criminal trials and damage suits.

Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul on Sept. 17, 2017. (Yonhap)
Environment Minister Kim Eun-kyung speaks during an interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul on Sept. 17, 2017. (Yonhap)

A government-led investigation later confirmed a connection between scores of people who died of lung problems and the chemicals used to clean household humidifiers. The tainted products were sold from 1994 until they were recalled by the government.

Kim said the government should take responsibility for the resolution of the case, saying "The stance of the previous government regarding the scandal was that corporations are to take responsibility since they caused it in the first place. But the government under President Moon Jae-in thinks it cannot avoid responsibility for its failure to ensure a safer management of chemical materials."

 "Up to now, we have limited the damages of toxic humidifier disinfectants to pulmonary fibrosis and excluded asthma out of the damages, but we are now treating asthma as one of medical probabilities relating to the case," Kim said. Pulmonary fibrosis is a lung disease that occurs when lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred.

The government panel, which investigates and judges damages from the case, had a discussion on whether asthma is a side effect on Aug. 10, when it held its first conference, but failed to reach a conclusion due to conflicting views among its members.

The panel found that a maximum 60,000 people either developed asthma from the use of such humidifier disinfectants or had their asthma worsened.

The recognition would enable people to receive government support in medical, living, nursing and funeral expenses.

During the interview, Kim also said the government is pushing ahead with a plan to revise the Law on Registration and Evaluation of Chemicals amid growing safety concerns about chemical products.

Prior knowledge of hazards involving chemicals is key to preventing incidents like the humidifier disinfectant scandal, the minister said.

"Unlike large companies which could acquire information on toxic materials through their own experiments, small and mid-size firms would have difficulty in obtaining such information," Kim said, adding the ministry is discussing with the SMEs and Startups Ministry ways to help the firms come by information on toxic materials.

The envisaged revision, which is expected to take effect on July 1 next year, will call for the securing of information on toxic chemicals and distributing that info throughout the country at an earlier stage. Companies will be required to register information on toxic chemicals by 2030. (Yonhap)