Consumers hold the power

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Consumers hold the power

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Ata Safdar, the head of Reckitt Benckiser Korea, apologized on Monday for the harm that its Oxy brand of humidifier sterilizers has caused. [CHO MUN-GYU]

“Do government and companies have the will and competency to protect my safety and life?” I’ve asked this question for some time now, and I am almost convinced that they don’t. My negative belief is based on both the humidifier sterilizer scandal that took at least 146 lives, and the handling of fine dust particles and air pollution.

The humidifier sterilizer was first introduced to the market in 2001, and the first victim died of unidentified lung damage in 2006. A number of deaths followed, caused by similar lung damage. But the government did nothing about this strange phenomenon. After Asan Medical Center pediatrician Hong Soo-jong investigated the cases for years and tracked down the humidifier sterilizer as the cause, the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised the public to refrain from using the sterilizer in 2011.

The government acknowledged the harm of the PHMG/PGH chemical used in Oxy and other sterilizers, but stated that there was no proven association between lung damage and the CMIT/MIT chemical used in E-Mart and Aekyung products. However, there were victims who died after only using products containing CMIT/MIT. The Lawyers for a Democratic Society argued that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had warned of the harm of CMIT/MIT in 1998, but the Korean government exempted toxic tests for 20 years from 1992. The government was absent when more than 100 Koreans were killed.

Fine dust particles are silent killers that torment the entire nation. However, the government slyly rides on the allegation that the fine dust is from China and has urged citizens to wear masks. There have been no plans or actions to address domestic factors that contribute to half of the fine dust particles. The National Institute of Environmental Research named diesel-powered vehicles as the main source of fine dust in Korea in 2013. Even before the Volkswagen diesel emissions-rigging scandal, the Korean government knew of the harmful environmental effect of diesel vehicles.

However, they turned a blind eye. When asked whether we need regulations on diesel vehicles, officials until recently had responded by saying, “With the Korea-EU Free Trade Agreement, Korea applies the strictest environmental standard of Euro 6.” Industries took priority over the health of citizens. Environmental experts insisted that Euro 6 was not enough to filter out ultra-fine dust, but the government refused to listen.

Then on Monday, the Ministry of Environment announced a plan to require a nitrogen oxide emissions test in the regular maintenance of diesel-fueled vehicles. As Europe, which had created a myth of “clean diesel,” has been producing various diesel regulations, the Korean government has announced lukewarm measures belatedly.

So it is a mere illusion that the government and companies would take all necessary measures for the safety of consumers. Is consumer awareness good enough?

A distribution industry insider said sales have decreased after the Oxy product boycott, but there are still people looking for Oxy-brand products, so they cannot completely clear them from the shelves. In Europe, sales of diesel vehicles decreased drastically but continued to grow in Korea. Last year, Korea had the first loss in the trade balance in diesel vehicles.

Reasonable consumption is to bring the most benefit to consumers. But in advanced capitalism, the concept of consumption is changing. While greed is one of the motives for corporate development, the level of greed has become uncontrollable, and the government constantly shows an apathetic attitude. In this society, the only entity that can safeguard the public good is the consumer.

Lately, the concept of consumer citizenship is emerging, asking consumers to abandon selfishness in the consumption process, to pursue the public good, and acquire the knowledge and attitude to fulfill social accountability. Some consumer movements are not enough to deal with greedy businesses and incompetent government. When consumers are awake and alert, companies and the government will at least pretend to care about our safety and life.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 11, Page 30


*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

Yang Sunny

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