Ministry ramps up toxicity tests on products

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Ministry ramps up toxicity tests on products

The Ministry of Environment called on some 8,000 companies to submit in June complete lists of chemicals and compounds used in their biocide products including air fresheners and deodorizing agents, announcing its intention to ends sales of all harmful chemical products.

While the ministry’s announcement was criticized by some and alarmed consumers about many potentially hazardous products, the Environment Ministry explained that chemical products made by some 8,000 companies only came under its watch in April 2015.

Regulation of chemicals in consumer products is not centralized in Korea.

In biocides - chemicals or compounds that kill germs or fungus - safety responsibility is scattered among different government departments. According to a report by the Korea Institute of Toxicology, the Ministry of Health and Welfare and Ministry of Food and Drug Safety both regulate sterilizers and pesticides; the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries both regulate animal and livestock-related biocides; and the Ministry of Environment regulates preservatives, disinfectants and water treatment chemicals.

Just last week, the Environment Ministry examined some 300 biocide products that are spray-type and widely retailed as part of its new watchdog responsibilities and declared seven of them contain the fatal compound polyhexamethylene guanidine (PHMG) or other toxic chemicals in amounts exceeding the level regulated by the state. PHMG was among fatal chemicals found in humidifier sterilizers that sickened and killed hundreds.

The ministry’s call to some 8,000 manufacturers is a continuation of the probe into the possible toxicity of chemical products under its watch.

The chemical products containing biocide substances can be divided into 15 categories, including air fresheners, deodorizing agents, detergents, bleaches, fabric softeners, dyes, sterilizers, pesticides, anti-rust additives and preservatives.

After collecting the list of chemicals, their levels and function from the companies, the ministry will request toxicity test reports on the chemicals from the companies and inform consumers.

“The Environment Ministry intends to investigate and confirm harmfulness of chemical products this year, especially focusing on those that are suspected to contain toxic substances,” said Hong Jeong-seop, head of the ministry’s Chemical Policy Division. “From next year, the ministry will conduct a wider probe into industrial products at large [including those not under the ministry watch] that contain biocide substances.”

The ministry will hold a briefing today at LW Convention in Jung District, central Seoul, with some 80 chemical product manufacturers including LG Household and Health Care, Aekyung, Pigeon, Proctor and Gamble, AmorePacific, some 10 retailers including Emart, and civic groups.

Manufacturers have reacted positively to the Environment Ministry’s announcement, many of them voluntarily signing up to attend its briefing.

“The situation can be turned around for [the companies’] benefits,” said an employee of a chemical product manufacturer. “Receiving a third party’s verification [proving the harmlessness of a product] is a good thing. Some of the 8,000 manufacturers’ products may contain toxic chemicals, but in safe proportions that remain harmless to consumers.”

“Just because the Oxy line of products are being boycotted by consumers does not mean good news for other manufacturers,” said an employee of a different chemical product company. “This round of investigation into chemical products can actually protect other companies from being unfairly lumped altogether as dangerous.”

The Environment Ministry also announced it will investigate chemical products outside its jurisdiction and examine products being sold by major retailers like Emart, Lotte Mart and Homeplus, and online markets such as Gmarket, 11st, Auction and Coupang.

Even if a certain product is not under the ministry’s watch, it can conduct safety inspection to “ascertain whether it is likely to cause danger or harm,” according to Article 9 of the Framework Act on Product Safety enforced on July of 2015.

Additionally, if such a product examined by the ministry is determined to likely cause danger or harm to “the life, health, or property of consumers,” the head of the Environment Ministry (or any central administrative agency) can “recommend the business owner of the relevant product to recall, destroy, repair, exchange, refund, or improve the product, or prohibit the manufacture or distribution of the product,” according to Article 10 of the framework.

The ministry plans to complete its investigations into chemical and industrial products both within and outside of its jurisdiction by the end of next year.

BY SUNG SI-YOON, ESTHER CHUNG, KWAK JAE-MIN [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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