South Korea’s Dioxin Double Take

By James Card

CHANGWON, South Korea, July 19, 2005 (ENS) - The South Korean government has promised to establish dioxin regulations by the end of this year after studies are done to determine if dioxins are dangerous to humans. Dioxins are a group of 75 chemically related chemicals classified by the World Health Organization as damaging persistent organic pollutants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers them as human carcinogens, but in South Korea, dioxins are not officially proven to be harmful.

Although the status of dioxins is in a grey area, South Korea has previously written regulations to restrict their discharge. In 1999, South Korea joined the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), which governs the emission of the dirty dozen - dioxins and 11 other chemicals.

Dioxins are an unwanted by-product of manufacturing. Pulp mills, chemical plants and smelting facilities are common emitters, while solid waste incinerators release the greatest amount of dioxins into the environment. One component of the waste burned in these incinerators is polyvinyl chloride plastics, and when chlorine based plastics are burned at too low a temperature, dioxins are emitted.

In January 2001, medium and large solid waste incinerators became subject to monitoring by the Korean Ministry of the Environment. In addition, numerous government agencies have conducted dioxin research, but their results have not yet been combined to create a database that would allow for comprehensive policy making on dioxin issues.


Agricultural plastics burn along the Nakdong River in South Korea. (Photo © James Card)
In South Korea concern focuses on dioxins as airborne and waterborne pollutants. When released, some dioxins are broken down by sunlight, some evaporate to air, but most attach to soil and settle to the bottom sediment in water.

Dioxin concentrations may build up in the food chain, resulting in measurable levels in animals. An estimated 90 percent of human dioxin intake is through food sources.

Chronic exposure to dioxins can lead to weakening of the immune system, skin diseases, infertility, cancer, and endocrine disruption.

In April 2005, the first public report about dioxin pollution from the steel industry was released by the state-run National Institute of Environmental Research (NIER). It revealed that two steelyards of Pohang Iron & Steel Co., Ltd., or Posco, one of South Korea’s most profitable corporations, emitted pollutants at rates 6,000 times higher than those released by the country’s biggest waste incinerator.

The Ministry of Environment researched the issue of dioxins emitted from the steelyards in 2002, but the results were not disclosed for reasons of corporate privacy.

The NIER report was inconclusive, stating that local laws governing dioxin emissions do not exist and they were unable to prove that the discharge of steelyard dioxin is a risk to health. More research was called for, along with standards to lower dioxin levels.

At the Gwangyang steelyard, a brown haze perpetually hangs over the area and a patina of black dust collects on neighborhood windowsills hours after they are wiped clean. In September 2004, Seoul National University researchers discovered that residents of Gwangyang have bronchial infections at a rate five times greater than the national average.

Many Gwangyang children are plagued with "ah-toe-pi,” the Korean word for atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a skin inflammation.

The most noted health effect in people exposed to large amounts of one dioxin - 2,3,7,8-TCDD - is chloracne, a severe skin disease with acne-like lesions that occur mainly on the face and upper body. Other skin effects noted in people exposed to high doses of this dioxin include skin rashes and discoloration, according to the U.S. federal Agency for Toxic Substances.


POSCO's Gwangyang steel plant has the capacity to turn out 4.5 million tons of crude steel a year. (Photo courtesy Samwhan Corp.)
In Pohang, home of the other Posco steelyard, the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute studied mussels in the nearby coastal areas. The level of dioxin extracted from the mussels was the highest in the nation. By the Institute's estimation, if a person consumed three or four mussels per day, that person would ingest dioxins in excess of the World Health Organization's recommended maximum intake of four trillionths of a gram per day per kilogram of bodyweight.

In 2003, the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported of a waste removal crisis. Of the country’s 232 landfills, half were ordered to close over a five year period because they were filled to overflowing.

That year, the Ministry of the Environment approved the construction of more municipal solid waste incinerators and declared that its waste disposal policy favored incineration over landfills. Ministry official Kang Sok-jae said, “We are aiming to double the percentage of incinerated waste to 30 percent by the year 2011.”

The construction of municipal incinerators is partially subsidized by the national government. Private companies bid for their construction and management. All together they are nicknamed the “Incineration Cartel” by environmental groups.

In 2002, the Citizens' Institute for Environment Studies took blood samples from residents living near waste incinerators in Pyeongtaek in the Gyeongii Province. The survey concluded that if the sampled residents are representative of the province, then people of the Gyeonggi area would have some of the highest dioxin levels in the world.

The incineration boom has not gone unnoticed and many Korean citizens are concerned about dioxin exposure. In many cities, civic groups have rallied and have pressured politicians not to build incinerators in their neighborhoods, invoking a not-in-my-backyard position.

In 2001, the Seoul government continued with their plan to build incinerators in the districts of Mapo, Gangnam, Yangcheon, and Nowon despite the protests and rallies of residents and environmental groups. Incinerator construction plans in the cities of Gyeongju and Busan were blocked successfully by citizens.

Some of the older incinerators use obsolete Japanese technology that emit more dioxins than the newer ones. In the last three decades, other industrialized nations created environmental policies that lowered the use of incinerators and dioxin emissions. So, incinerator manufacturers targeted foreign markets where public awareness about incinerator generated dioxin was limited or nonexistent.

By the 1990s, South Korea had become a dumping ground for over 13,000 small scale incinerators that discharge 20 to 30 times more dioxin than larger ones.

In 1998, there were 14,791 incinerators across the country and 95 percent were small capacity incinerators that are estimated to produce 52 percent of total dioxin emissions in South Korea.

The government sponsored incinerators and heavy industries are not the only dioxin emitters - burning agricultural plastics contributes to the country's dioxin burden.

Covering the Korean countryside are tunnel-like seasonal greenhouses that extend across the limited flatlands. Used to mitigate the weather fluctuations and optimize plant growth, the greenhouses are made of polyvinyl chloride film. Once worn or torn, the agricultural plastics are burned and produce a thick, black smoke, laden with dioxins. Although local regulations addressing this pollution exist, enforcement is uncommon or nonexistent.

Critics say the South Korean government is in the Dark Ages when it comes to regulating dioxin levels. But after the promised government studies are completed, South Korean residents may gain some insight into the risks of dioxin emissions.