[Viewpoint] Asbestos danger overlooked

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[Viewpoint] Asbestos danger overlooked

As a general rule, it is good to forgive, overcome and forget.

However, there are things that we simply must not forget.

Previous generations endured the struggle for independence, war, poverty and dictatorship. Natural disasters and social issues repeatedly take place, although people make a fuss about finding preventive measures or reasons every time. Economic crises continually hit us because we pursue short-term interests.

We must not forget these things.

If we do, we waste our national energy, and we will feel even more pain down the road.

The asbestos scandal is a good example. It was pinpointed as a major pollutant that killed babies. Yet in only a month it has been completely forgotten.

There is a saying that one is brave when one is ignorant.

In the past, we in Korea used asbestos-containing materials frequently in our daily lives. Asbestos is light and cheap as well as heat- and fire-resistant. The material is used as insulation on roofs, ceilings and walls, surrounding us everywhere.

According to the National Assembly’s discussion materials, 88 out of 100 primary and middle schools have used construction materials that contain asbestos. When asbestos is used in such materials, we’re usually talking about large quantities. And it lasts almost forever.

The harm from asbestos in this way is not comparable to the harm caused by asbestos-tainted baby powder and pharmaceutical products. Buildings with asbestos materials are not easy to tear down, because doing so can produce huge amounts of dangerous dust.

As seen in examples from other countries, the only way to be free from asbestos pollution is to control it and prevent further harm as early as possible in a safe, professional way. As for public buildings, the government must develop standard prevention procedures and nurture companies specializing in handling asbestos materials. It also must set up laws centered around prevention and the control of asbestos.

Farming and fishing villages have more serious problems.

In 1967, President Park Chung Hee established laws to improve housing in farming and fishing villages. His order required a change from thatched roofs to tiled, asbestos and metal roofs. The Ministry of Agriculture was first in charge of the effort. From 1972, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and local governments made it a priority to improve houses as part of the Saemaeul, or New Village, Movement.

The project was funded by homeowners (30 percent), loans (65 percent) and government subsidies (5 percent). Large new homes along highways were the first to be completed, as they were easier to spot and therefore helped promote the campaign.

From 1977 to 1987, loans of about 50 billion won ($39.5 million) were taken out annually, and 320,000 houses in the countryside were renovated. According to Korean Women’s Development Institute statistics in 1988, 53 percent of newly renovated houses used tiles for their roofs, 23 percent used asbestos cement roofs, 14 percent, slab roofs and 10 percent thatched roofs. The numbers show that asbestos roofs were commonly used back then.

Some 30 years have passed since those homes were renovated. They have become worn out, along with their owners. It is difficult for aging owners to renovate their houses once again. Even if they want to remodel, they do not have money or don’t know how. Many of the houses have been abandoned. At this very moment, those abandoned houses are producing asbestos dust that people unknowingly inhale.

It is not unusual to hear stories about owners who could not pay back their loans for renovation and ran away from their houses at night.

When asbestos roofs became commonplace, government policy typically first aimed to promote the government itself. The big push for asbestos roofs came because the government wielded its administrative power and the law, rather than because the homeowners wanted it.

As it was the former government that created the problem, the government must resolve it. The government must institute new laws and regulations to control the problem and prevent it from getting worse.

It is impossible to predict all crises, and therefore we cannot prevent all problems. We can forget mad cow disease because it is very unlikely to occur again.

On the other hand, regionalism, economic crises, pollution from asbestos, avian flu, food scandals, floods and droughts are actually taking place and continue to recur.

Therefore, we need to learn something from them and resolve the fundamental problems beneath them.

If the government is proposing an agenda for green growth while it neglects problems that threaten the people’s daily life and health, Korea cannot be called an advanced country.

We need to end asbestos pollution.

*The writer is a professor of rural system engineering at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Jung-jae
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