Korea’s Asbestos Problem Becomes More Apparent

Regular readers may recall a recent article about the first case of asbestos litigation in South Korea–a country where, as virtually everywhere else in the world, asbestos has been used in almost everything. Unlike the rest of the world however, asbestos issues have not been apparent here–until now.
Perhaps the recent asbestos lawsuit filed by a family on behalf of a deceased member who died of mesothelioma at the relatively young age of 45 has forced the asbestos issue into public awareness. In any event, it appears that asbestos dust is falling from the ceilings of the capital city’s subway system–a form of transportation used by thousands of city residents on a daily basis. Representatives of Seoul Metro, which operates the city’s subways, said that the original purpose of the asbestos was to provide soundproofing and insulation. That material is now starting to crumble as it becomes friable with age. The description of the dust–a “yellow powder”–suggests that the asbestos is of the “brown,” or amosite variety.

This is a particularly deadly form of amphibole asbestos shown to cause mesothelioma and outlawed in virtually every nation on earth–including the U.S. and Canada. Unfortunately, most Seoul commuters who use the subway on a daily basis are unaware of the health threat that is visible on the walls, ceilings, and floors of the 17 affected subway stations. It gets worse: according to a recent South Korean Ministry of Health survey, nearly one-third of Seoul Metro employees are currently suffering from respiratory and other health problems attributable to asbestos. Why has neither the municipal government nor Seoul Metro taken action? The reason is one that average, working Americans have become all-too-familiar with: money. Although South Korea has a relatively prosperous economy, there seems to be little funding for infrastructure. Seoul Metro was to have closed down one of the major subway stations last month, but as of 13 January, the company had failed to include funding for asbestos abatement in its budget. In yet another station, asbestos abatement activities were halted when the crew encountered unexpected difficulties. However, the station remains open to commuters. According to the report, Seoul Metro will conduct inspections of the remaining stations, but no asbestos removal is planned for at least two more years.