Asia’s fourth largest economy, South Korea is well known as the home of globally successful electronics companies Samsung and LG. The chemical industry is South Korea’s third-largest manufacturing industry, with the majority segment - around 36% - represented by basic petrochemicals. All 25 of the largest global chemical companies now operate at least one manufacturing base in the country.
Describing its national chemicals policy as ‘forward-thinking’ and with a focus on green technology, South Korea is aiming to take the lead in terms of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology and electronic chemicals.
Environmental issues will be a top priority. South Korea is the first country in Asia to implement EU-style regulations on chemical reporting, requiring the registration of both new and existing chemicals. In January 2015 the country passed an Act on the Registration and Evaluation of Chemicals (ARECs or K-REACH), which came into force immediately. The move followed an incident in September 2012, when workers at the Hube Global plant in Gumi city were unloading hydrofluoric acid from a tanker when an explosion occurred, causing the acid to leak. Five deaths were confirmed initially and 4260 people required medical attention.
Currently, the government is overhauling existing regulations on biocides, setting new substance limits for products containing biocides, including sterilisers, antibiotics, preservatives or disinfectants. The development is a response to the country’s ‘humidifier scandal’ - an example of the wide-scale damage that can result when domestic chemical products are not adequately assessed. Since around the start of the new millennium around 500 people are known to have died or been injured after purchasing chemical-based disinfectant products for at-home dehumidifiers. The disinfectants, containing polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG), caused a range of respiratory and other illnesses on inhaling the substance, particularly in pregnant women.
While the illnesses began to surface as far back as 2001, it was not until 2011 that South Korean authorities suggested a link between chemicals used to sterilise humidifiers and lung conditions. The finger of blame was pointed firmly at UK-based Reckitt Benckiser, the most well-known of a number of companies selling the products in South Korea through its subsidiary Oxy RB.
In 2011, Oxy RB withdrew its disinfectant product from the market, accepting no responsibility at the time. In 2016, local press reports claimed the company had paid a university professor to manipulate the toxicity results of safety data sheets relating to the product. In May 2016, Reckitt Benckiser issued a formal apology and said it accepted ‘full responsibility for the role that this product played in these health issues, including deaths’. Shortly afterwards, sales of all RB products dropped sharply, with campaigners calling for a national boycott.
Baskut Tuncat, UN special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, who visited the country in 2015, noted in an end of visit statement: ‘It does not appear that Oxy Reckitt Benckiser conducted any investigation into the health risks of inhaling the substance dispersed by the humidifier despite what appears to be virtually no information about its hazards, in compliance with weak legal standards of protection at the time.’
The new biocides legislation currently being worked out will contain elements of the European Biocidal Product Regulation (BPR). The government will draw up a list of ingredients allowed for use in biocides products and put together a more clearly defined set of rules to follow when handling products. According to the environment ministry, a list of 15 products already exists, including air fresheners and deodorants. Manufacturers and importers are now being asked to supply data on their products, including all ingredients, the purpose of their use and possible risks and dangers.
In the next step, planned for later in 2017, data on biocides contained in industrial products, electrical appliances and packaging will be collected and prepared for legal regulation. The government says it has revised 15,000 products, from deodorisers to detergents, and has banned seven biocides for containing prohibited chemicals. It has also promised to catalogue the level of toxicity of every household biocide – a mammoth task that sources have said is unrealistic.
Elsewhere in Asia, meanwhile, China’s government is working on a new regulation to replace its overarching chemicals law, Decree 591. The new law will cover both new and existing hazardous substances – unlike Decree 591, which focuses on new substances only. The move comes after the explosion at Tianjin in China in 2015 led to investigations of chemicals businesses across the country and a rethinking of policy. The new law has yet to be released for public comment and no information on the first official draft is available.
Charlotte Niemiec is a freelance journalist reporting on the chemicals and commodities markets, former Asia editor at Chemical Watch.