Addressing biocide risk

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Addressing biocide risk

Public health risks from exposure to everyday biocides has come into focus amid an ongoing probe into the poisonous humidifier sterilizers that caused 143 deaths.

Biocides are chemical substances aimed at combating harmful and unwanted organisms such as mould, bacteria, algae, insects and rodents that are used in everyday life in households and workplaces for disinfection, preservation and pest control. They are indispensable in modern life. Biocides make up 30 percent of the artificial chemicals available on the market.

Although biocides contain only a small amount toxins to kill pathogens, humans are still exposed when they use them. These chemicals must be as strictly controlled. But many newly developed chemical substances are put on the market without their safety being sufficiently investigated. The substance recklessly added to humidifier sterilizers had previously been used to clean floors, but was somehow deemed safe for humans to inhale.

Authorities must toughen safety checks on all chemicals including biocides. They must reexamine the products using substances whose safety has not been completely confirmed. They should go through them one by one if necessary, regardless of the cost and the time. The government must prevent materials from hitting the market before safety is assured.

The European Union established guidelines on biocides in 1998, breaking them into different types for strict supervision. It banned products without registrations or safety licenses. In 2013, the EU regulated products with biocides to prohibit the production and sale of materials that are hazardous to humans and the environment.

Korea is only preparing a law that defines the sterilizers used in humidifiers as dangerous to the respiratory system. The nation currently lacks the legal structure to ensure public health. It only regulates a select number of biocides under the registration and evaluation of chemical products. The government and legislature must come up with separate laws to prevent the recurrence of lethal disasters like the humidifier sterilizers.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 6, Page 26
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