Air and water: causes for concernThe JoongAng Ilbo and a handful of researchers recently studied air and water pollution in Korea, and how they affect public health. Their results showed that both air and water pollution levels in parts of Korea are high enough to cause various diseases.
Seoul now has the worst air quality of the major cities in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. Disturbing results have arisen from tests of some Korean water sources; most Koreans either shun tap water or purify it. In areas where purified tap water is not provided, some people drink well water, sometimes of dubious quality. The team also examined the degree to which certain construction materials discharge carcinogenic substances inside homes.
Participating in this research were Jang Jae-yeon, professor of medicine at Ajou University; Kwon Ho-jang, professor of medicine at Dankook University; Lee Jong-tae, professor of medicine at Hanyang University; Kim Ye-sin, an environment and pollution expert at Yonsei University; Im Sin-ye, a physician at Seoul Metropolitan Seodaemun Hospital; Choi Ye-yong, a researcher at the Citizens’ Institute for Environmental Studies; Gang Tae-seon, a researcher at Green Hospital in Seoul, and Kim Ho, professor of medicine at Seoul National University.
Air pollution is not just an outdoor problem. Many health problems, such as headaches and skin disease, have been attributed to bad air in new homes. This has been nicknamed “sick house syndrome.”
Many people believe an air purifier can adequately clean their indoor air. But experts have been urging the government to develop policies to address the issue.
The Ministry of Environment embarked on a study of air quality in apartments and commercial establishments like below-ground stores and saunas that were less than a year old.
In 2001, the Korea Institute of Construction Technology examined the concentration of formaldehyde in the air in five new apartment complexes. What they found was startling ― an average of 92 to 383 parts per billion of formaldehyde in the air. The World Health Organization’s standard is 80 parts per billion.
A survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, carried out by the JoongAng Ilbo, found that 13 percent reported experiencing headaches, skin ailments or asthma after moving into a new apartment.
Formaldehyde is a colorless compound used in manufacturing industrial-strength glue for construction materials and for furniture.
In one apartment in Seoul’s Mapo district, the concentration of formaldehyde was as high as 607 parts per billion.
At 100 parts per billion, formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and disturb the respiratory system. Higher concentrations can bring on emphysema or pneumonia. Formaldehyde is water-soluble, so the higher the humidity, the higher the emissions recorded.
“It takes to two to four years for formaldehyde emissions to be cut in half, and the air must be ventilated frequently,” said a member of the research team.
To minimize effects on health, researchers said, the use of construction materials containing formaldehyde should be curtailed.
Radon, a radioactive gas, can be produced from cement and concrete. Piping water from underground with high radon concentrations through the tap can also contaminate air, experts said.
To prevent sick-house syndrome, entire buildings should be heated before residents move in, to flush out potential pollutants such as formaldehyde. The Ministry of the Environment has introduced quality ratings for construction materials that indicate the amount of potential pollutants that could be discharged from these materials.
Residents also shouldn’t overestimate the effects of machines that purport to clean indoor air.
“Even when air purifiers are used, full ventilation is required,” one expert said, adding that other sources of pollutants, such as cigarette smoke, should be cut down. Smoking can increase the level of carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Even such seemingly innocuous equipment as ovens and stove-top ranges can cause headache and vertigo as a result of the combustion process. To reduce indoor air contamination, apartment-dwellers are urged to leave windows open when possible.
Public unease about water might not be unwarranted
A study by the Korea Institute of Science and Technology of an Incheon water purification plant that had reported no serious problems found an average of 29 parts per billion of diethylene dioxide in its water.
The chemical, commonly known as dioxane, is a solvent used in paint. In a 1995 report, the U.S. Environment Protection Agency found that prolonged exposure to dioxane causes cancer in animals, and “may likewise cause cancer in humans.” Nonetheless, Korea has issued no specific environmental guidelines for it. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization recommends that dioxane in water be kept below 50 parts per billion (ppb).
Of four tests performed by KIST on the water plant, two came up negative. But one detected 114 ppb of dioxane, more than twice the amount recommended by the health agency. An earlier evaluation of a water purification facility in Daegu once detected 240 ppb of dioxane.
These results point to a pitfall involved in relying on average concentrations. What if a pregnant woman drank the contaminated water when the dioxane was at its highest concentration?
In a JoongAng Ilbo survey of 1,000 adults nationwide, only 6.4 percent of respondents said they drank water directly from the tap. In Busan, fewer than 3 percent of residents surveyed turned to the tap.
Another survey by Ajou University further confirmed this trend. Ajou found that only 0.4 percent of Seoul residents drank tap water with no purification method. Another 17 percent steered clear of tap water entirely.
Although the number of water-source contamination accidents has dropped, eutrophication and green tide in the Han River’s upstream sections ― Seoul’s water source ― are recurring. Last November, prosecutors found that companies were discharging Formalin, a solution of formaldehyde with trace amounts of methanol, in the river’s upper reaches.
Severe contamination of the upper river can adversely affect tap water. That’s because the process of sterilizing contaminated water may bring about unwanted chemical reactions that produce undesirable residue. Without disinfection, however, the water is undrinkable because of viruses and bacteria.
“Increasing the amount of chlorine in the purification process to kill microorganisms could produce more carcinogenic residue,” one researcher said.
Problems lie also in underground water, a source for roughly 5.5 million Koreans and one-fifth of all primary, middle and high schools nationwide. A number of these sources have been found to be contaminated.
In Jan. 2003, the National Institute of Environmental Research found 51 parts per billion of uranium in underground water in Icheon, Gyeonggi province, higher than the U.S. environmental agency’s 33-ppb limit.
In front of a gas station in Icheon, a warning sign said, “Underground water here contains a high concentration of uranium, a radioactive metal, and cannot be used as drinking water.”
But in a nearby village, underground water continues to be used as drinking water.
Existing government water quality tests do not test for uranium, though uranium-contaminated water, if drunk over an extended time, could cause cancer. “There is usually a large difference in the amount of radioactive materials from region to region,” said Yonsei’s Kim Ye-sin. “Even after four years of research, the government has not taken any measures. This is a waste of money and neglects the health of the public.”
Poor air quality believed to cost lives every year
Seoul has the worst air pollution among major cities in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries. According to a study, if Seoul’s air were improved to the level of Tokyo’s, residents of the city would live an average of three years longer.
The same study also estimated that if Seoul’s air were improved to that degree, it would save the lives of roughly 1,000 people per year who die from conditions aggravated by the poor air quality.
Fine dust particles, measuring 1/1000th of a millimeter or less in diameter, are emitted from the diesel engines of buses and trucks. The dust contains toxic metals and other carcinogens. Should the concentration of this fine dust increase by 10 micrograms per cubic meter, it could increase the risk of early death by half a percent, said Kwon Ho-jang, a professor of medicine at Dankook University and member of the Citizens’ Institute for Environmental Studies.
When the effects of other pollutants such as carbon dioxide are factored in, the number of premature deaths can increase dramatically.
According to a Harvard University study of 86 large American cities, increases of fine dust in the air can raise the infant mortality rate by as much as 40 percentage points. Dankook University and Seoul National University researchers also found that fine dust emissions increase the rate of death from heart disease.
Those already suffering from respiratory diseases are especially susceptible to early death caused by a sudden deterioration in air quality. A dramatic example of this phenomenon occurred in London in 1952, when the level of pollution dramatically worsened, causing about 4,000 deaths in five days.
Seoul citizens are exposed to twice to three times the amount of carcinogens as those living in Yeoncheon, Gangneung and the city of Jeju, said Kang Dae-hee, a medical professor at Seoul National University.
Researchers testing the urine of 300 children and their mothers in Seoul found 60 picograms (one trillionth of a gram) of 1-hydroxypyrene glucuronide ― a carcinogen ― in their urine, while residents of Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi province, Jeju city, Gangneung and Cheonan had 20 to 38 picograms of the substance in their urine.
The World Health Organization has said that of 1.2 million people worldwide who die of pneumonia each year, 62,000 are attributed to air pollution.
A joint study by Brigham Young and New York universities found a significant relationship between air pollution and deaths from lung cancer.
Air pollution also affects the circulatory system. Lee Jong-tae of Hanyang University said dust, ozone and sulfurous acid gas raised the rate of death caused by cerebral infarction, a kind of stroke, by 3 to 6 percentage points. Air pollutants increases blood coagulation and hinders blood circulation, the research found.
In 2002, scientists at Inha University, Hanyang University and Harvard found a strong correlation between air pollution and the number of deaths from cerebral apoplexy.
The Korean government hopes to improve Seoul’s air quality to Paris’s or Tokyo’s level in 10 years. The Ministry of the Environment is focusing on five major air pollutants: ozone, sulfurous acid gas, carbon monoxide, lead and fine dust.
The amount of sulfurous acid gas, for a time the biggest air pollutant, has declined due to the growing use of cleaner energy sources. Due to the rising numbers of cars on the road, however, air pollution from carbon dioxide and ozone have become serious problems.
The research team said the government should work harder to reduce automobile emissions, which account for 80 percent of air pollution in Korea.
In the meantime, on days with high air pollution levels, health authorities advise children and old people to stay indoors.
by Kang Chan-su, Kwon Keun-young