South Korea Tightens Asbestos Regulations

Asbestos Exposure & Bans

South Korea is strengthening its Asbestos Safety Management Act (ASMA) beginning next month to better protect those involved in the renovation or demolition of older structures.

The country has added to the recent, worldwide momentum aimed at minimizing health risks stemming from exposure to asbestos. South Korea already is one of 58 countries that have banned the toxic mineral, joining that club in 2009.

New Zealand became the latest country to ban asbestos in June. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in May announced his intention to work toward a ban. The United States earlier this year amended its Toxic Substances Control Act, which will give the Environmental Protection Agency more power to restrict the use of asbestos. The U.S. still does not ban it.

South Korea’s revised ASMA, which becomes effective Aug. 15, would require owners of commercial and residential buildings with asbestos to have a certified safety inspector present to supervise all work.

That inspector must record the changing status of asbestos within the structure and ensure that proper asbestos removal and disposal procedures are followed.

“Exposure to the particles of worn-out asbestos materials during reconstruction can lead to health risks,” Lee Seung-bok, professor of architectural engineering at Yonsei University told the Korea Herald. “Like other developed countries which have used a large amount of asbestos in the past, we have to make sure the removal or dismantling of asbestos is done in sealed areas.”

Haunted by Past Asbestos Use

Despite the ban seven years earlier, South Korea still is haunted by its extensive use of asbestos in the past. It poses an occupational threat to some, and a secondhand threat to millions of others. The ASMA was first passed in 2011.

Seoul Metropolitan Government data shows that 3,456 buildings in the capital city contain vast amounts of asbestos, according to the Herald. Most of those structures include asbestos cement in the floors, ceilings and walls.

Data also shows that 78 percent of the schools, 50 percent of all public facilities and 35 percent of the senior centers today were built using asbestos materials. Public facilities include hospitals, retail stores, libraries and subway stations.

The Office of Education in Incheon Metropolitan City, which borders Seoul, started an ambitious asbestos removal project in 2014 that eventually will include 373 public schools and cost more than $60 million.

The South Korean ban in 2009 included any manufacture, import or use of construction materials with over 0.1 percent asbestos. It did not impact asbestos already in place.

Mesothelioma Is Still a Concern in South Korea

New construction today is considerably safer, but the renovation and remodeling of any older structures has become dangerous for a country that previously had little oversight within the industry.

Asbestos exposure can lead to a variety of serious health issues, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. No amount of exposure is considered safe.

The Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health (ACCEH) lists 2,184 people in South Korea diagnosed with an asbestos-related medical condition since 2011.

“Although there has been no rapid increase in asbestos-related illnesses here so far, such illnesses are expected to increase due to large amounts of asbestos used in the past four decades and the long latency period,” Choi Ye-yong, director of ACCEH, told the Herald.

Choi also cited the lack of specialty centers designed to treat asbestos-related illnesses, as reason for concern.

The latest news regarding asbestos safeguards in South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, and the U.S. is encouraging and continues the recent trend around the world.

Columbia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have expressed at least a new willingness to discuss asbestos health concerns, according to advocacy groups. Nepal instituted its ban on asbestos in 2015.

Only 23 countries use more than 500 tons of asbestos annually, compared to 37 countries that used that amount four years ago, according to the latest data on the global asbestos trade.

The World Health Organization estimates that 100,000 people die annually from asbestos-related conditions.

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