Amid the widening probe into the humidifier sterilizer tragedy, the government is coming under fire for its lax supervision that is blamed for allowing the use of toxic chemicals in humidifier sterilizers.
The ministry is accused of skipping necessary tests and overlooking omitted documents when approving the products in question. The government is also being criticized for opposing the opposition-led legislative drive to fortify compensation for the victims.
According to liberal lawyers’ group Minbyun, the Environment Ministry had skipped requirements on toxicity tests for CMIT and MIT. These are the chemicals contained in humidifier sterilizers from local brands Aekyung and E-mart. The ministry has argued that the two chemicals were regarded as general chemicals when the Toxic Chemicals Control Act took effect in 1991. The ministry has also said that it was “practically difficult” to test all 36,000 chemicals and sort them into the toxicoid category.
In 2003, another humidifier sterilizer maker Cefu -- which used PGH in their product -- was approved by the National Institute of Environmental Research, although Cefu reportedly submitted an incomplete application without mentioning the purpose of the use of PGH and the import amount.
South Korea’s Toxic Chemicals Control Act states that all chemical importers should submit import applications with clearly stated purpose of the use of chemicals and import amounts. The chemicals should also go through a mandatory chemical toxicity test at the NIER.
But in April 2003, the NIER approved Cefu’s PGH to be imported and used in the product without it having gone through the chemical toxicity test. The NIER later even announced that PGH is “not toxic” in its official gazette.
According to Danish chemical firm KeTox, which supplied PGH to Cefu, the Materials Safety Data Sheet on PGH warns that it is necessary to breathe in fresh air when a person inhales PGH.
On Monday, the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office summoned Cefu manufacturer Butterfly Effect’s chief executive officer surnamed Oh. As of 2014, the brand is blamed for 14 deaths, while 41 suffer health damages.
Criticism toward the government has soared as it remains skeptical of several bills pushed by the opposition.
A legislative bill on remedies for injuries caused by the use of toxic humidifier sterilizer -- which was proposed by Rep. Jang Ha-na from the opposition The Minjoo Party in May, 2013 -- was opposed by the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Federation of Korean Industries.
The bill states that victims should be provided with medical care benefits, living expenses, funeral expenses and condolence money for bereavement. The bill also states that relief funds for victims should be collected by the government, humidifier sterilizer manufacturers and distributers.
The Ministry of Strategy and Finance argued that “it is difficult to accept the bill since the causality between chemicals contained in humidifier sterilizer and health damages is unclear.” The FKI also opposed the bill saying, “Chemical manufacturing companies will have too much financial burden.”
With the ruling Saenuri Party sharing their concerns, a revised supplementary budget bill on 500 million won as well as negotiations on the bill fell apart Monday. The discussion is expected to recommence after the 20th National Assembly starts later this month.
On Wednesday, Environment Minister Yoon Seong-kyu appeared for a meeting with the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee to brief on the estimated damages caused by toxic humidifier sterilizers and the status of compensation for victims.
Environment Minister Yoon Seong-kyu (center) attends a parliamentary meeting on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
Yoon apologized at the meeting saying that the “humidifier sterilizer tragedy was an accident caused by the ministry’s lax safety regulations on products.”
The Environment Ministry’s vice-Minister Jeong Yeon-man also told reporters on Wednesday that the government is considering supporting the living expenses of victims and their families.
“We were mainly focused in providing victims’ families with medical fee or funeral expenses so far, but now we would like to discuss methods to provide them with living expenses,” Jeong was quoted as saying.
According to government data, a total of 203 humidifier sterilizer victims received an accumulated 3.75 billion won in compensation as of 2016, out of a total of 530 who reported health damages related to the use of humidifier sterilizers in July 2013. The compensation was paid by the government, which is currently in a court battle against 13 manufacturers for reimbursement.
The Environment Ministry is currently conducting medical checkups on 752 applicants who reported health damages in 2015 at Asan Medical Center in downtown Seoul, to confirm the correlation of their symptoms to sterilizer toxicoid.
By Kim Da-sol (firstname.lastname@example.org