Humidifier killings still traumatizing the nation

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Humidifier killings still traumatizing the nation

Mr. Jang, 27, got married in 2005. Shortly afterward, he collapsed and was hospitalized. Doctors told Jang he had some form of an interstitial lung disease and his lung tissues were damaged. He asked the cause.

Doctors said they didn’t know.

After his initial collapse, Jang’s condition worsened to the point that he could not go a single day without the help of a respirator. His wife divorced him within a year.

He was hospitalized over and over again and was waiting for a lung transplant. But he didn’t make it. Jang died Sept. 13 - five months after the government officially concluded that a humidifier disinfectant that Jang used during the early days of his marriage was the most likely cause for his lung disease.

In 2011, a mysterious series of deaths of people from all over Korea from pulmonary fibrosis made headlines. Over an eight month period, 28 people died of pulmonary fibrosis of an unknown origin. The victims had no connections. Some were pregnant women, but many were not. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated and determined that sterilizers used in humidifiers were the cause. Pregnant women were more susceptible, they found, because they stayed home nearer the humidifiers more than other people.

Health authorities officially confirmed the issue in November 2011. The authorities reported that there was a cause and effect relation between the disease and disinfectants stirred into the water used in dehumidifiers. Two ingredients PHMG (polyhexamethylene guanidine) and PGH (ligo(2-)ethoxy ethoxyethyl guanidine chloride) were isolated as the toxic agents.

The conclusion came from experiments on rats, which showed similar respiratory symptoms after exposure to those ingredients as well as CMIT (chloromethylisothiazolinone) and MIT (methylchloroisothiazolinone). The government designated those ingredients as toxic materials.

In March 2013, an opposition representative claimed that a total of 112 deaths resulted from the humidifier sterilizing agents, including the 28 originally disclosed. Since Nov. 2011, many more cases were reported to authorities by families.

The lawmaker said a total of 357 people were made ill by the sterilizing agents.

Currently, around 380 people are assumed to be suffering from lung disease as victims of humidifier disinfectant.

According to the Ministry of Environment and a private organization, Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health, 95 people have passed away as a result of the disinfectants. The 380 figure includes patients designated as severely affected and less severely affected. The number could soar if victims only mildly affected are included in the official casualty statistics. The government is partially supporting medical and funeral expenses for patients in the first and second categories.

The prosecution has started investigating a few humidifier disinfectant manufacturers on suspicions of corruption. A special rapporteur from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights who visited Korea on Oct. 12 is carrying out a related investigation. The special rapporteur will meet with victims and manufacturers and hold a press conference on Friday.

Victims and the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health claim the police and prosecutors are not putting enough effort into the investigation.

“Presidents of humidifier disinfectant manufacturers who are avoiding the responsibility for killing children and mothers should be convicted of murder,” said the Asian Citizen’s Center for Environment and Health in a statement Monday.

BY HWANG SOO-YEON [jin.minji@joongang.co.kr]

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