[Debriefing] Radioactive mattresses

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[Debriefing] Radioactive mattresses


Over 10,000 “radon mattresses” recalled from across the country are stacked at the port in Dangjin, South Chungcheong. [YONHAP]

It has been almost two months since mattresses from a local manufacturer were found to contain the radioactive element radon. The company has now recalled over 40,000 of the problematic mattresses.

But fears and concerns over the dangerous chemical still linger, mostly because of a lack of information over possible health risks and the possibility that the element could be more common in the household than originally thought.

Here are the basics on the radon mattress scandal and why it has caused such a stir.


Q. Why have mattresses containing radon been in the news?

Two dozen mattresses made by Daijin Bed were found to emit dangerous amounts of radon, a radioactive chemical substance linked to cancer and various respiratory diseases, in May. The Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) concluded that the annual radiation dose of the mattresses tested exceeded the safety standard for processed products of 1 millisievert (mSv) per year.

The incident was sparked by a news report from a local broadcasting station earlier in May that revealed four of Daijin’s mattresses were emitting unusually large amount of radon. The original lead came from a housewife who closely monitored the air quality in her home because her young son had been born with weak lungs. She was randomly measuring radon levels around the house when she noticed that there was an unusually large reading above her bed.

Q. What happened after the news broke?

The NSSC only increased concerns as it struggled to reach a decision on how harmful the mattresses actually are. The commission eventually confirmed that 29 varieties of Daijin mattress were dangerous as of Friday.

The saga didn’t end there, as exactly how Daijin was going to dispose of the beds quickly became an issue.

The company and the government initially decided to dismantle the mattresses at a warehouse in Dangjin, South Chungcheong. Facing fierce disapproval from residents, the government and the company transferred some 25,000 beds to Cheonan, North Chungcheong, where Daijin’s headquarters is located. Over 6,000 have been dismantled there.

The remaining 16,000 beds are still stacked in Dangjin’s port, unable to be transferred to Cheonan where residents have blocked the entrance to the headquarters and demanded that the beds be dealt with at the radioactive management facility in Gyeongju, South Gyeongsang. The commission says the monazite, the mineral in the beds that contains radon, is not classified as a radioactive material to be dealt with at the facilities under the Nuclear Safety Act.

Q. What is the material in these mattresses?

The NSSC discovered monazite powder in the inner covers of the mattresses. This was no accident - Daijin Bed promoted the beds as containing “negative ion powder,” which many Koreans have long believed is good for their health. The promotional material did not mention that the negative ion powder was monazite.

Daijin bought the powder from an unknown local supplier. The supplier has also sold monazite to 65 other manufacturers of various household goods.

Monazite is a rare earth resource mostly found at the seaside that contains uranium and thorium at a proportion of 1 to 10. Both uranium and thorium are chemical elements. What makes monazite problematic is that the two produce harmful gases over the course of radioactive decay - radon and thoron.

Q. How dangerous are the materials?

The actual risk comes from radon, a radioactive, colorless, odorless and tasteless gas, which is why the mattresses from Daijin are now being called “radon mattresses.” Radon is harmful to humans, and can be breathed in as a gas.

The majority of the gas is naturally released into the air as people breathe but even a small amount left in the body can be fatal. Radon has a very short half-life of just 3.82 days - uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years - meaning that there is plenty of time for it to decay and release harmful radioactive atoms while it is still in the body. As radon decays it produces polonium, leads and bismuth which emit alpha particles that damage DNA in the lungs and cause cancer.

Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking and the International Agency for Research on Cancer under the World Health Organization said in a report in 2009 that radon was the cause of up to 14 percent of lung cancer cases.

Q. What were the supposed health benefits of negative ion powder?

There are a number of alleged health-related benefits of negative ions that have never been scientifically proven. They are said to purify the air, neutralize oxidized blood, serve as anti-oxidants and encourage the secretion of beneficial hormones. It also apparently increases the metabolism and concentration.

But scientists say the widespread premise that a certain product “emits negative ions” has no scientific ground. Manufacturers - whether they actually believed it or not - actually promoted the alpha particles emitted over the course of radioactive decay as negative ions in order to “sell” their goods. Negative ions have been cited as a common example of “pseudoscience” for more than a decade, but nothing has been done about their use in domestic products.

Q. Which other products use the so-called negative ion powders?

Investigations by the NSSC and the Korea Foundation of Nuclear Safety last year showed that there were 75 products on the market that claimed to “generate negative ions.” They range from necklaces and bracelets to powder detergents, water purifiers, lotion cosmetics, hats, underwear and even sanitary pads.

Of those products, 57 were found to contain radioactive materials - monazite and another mineral called tourmaline. But since the radioactive exposure dose from those materials was below the safety ceiling, they are still available for purchase.

Different government organizations even have different standards when it comes to approving the use of monazite or the production of goods made out of it. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in 2014, “We cannot say whether these products work as advertised. If you have them or know someone who does, our best advice is to throw them away.”

Q. Does Korea have any history of radon becoming an issue?

This isn’t the first time that the use of monazite has been controversial. In 2007 radiation levels exceeding the regulatory ceiling were found in heating mats used for medicinal purposes and stone beds. The government vowed to track down minerals originating from rare earth resources and their usage as well as to come up with regulatory measures - the same comments that followed the most recent radon scandal. Four years later, radioactive material was again discovered in wallpapers containing monazite.

The Act on Protective Action Guidelines against Radiation in the Natural Environment was enforced in July 2012 but has barely been effective in tackling potentially harmful materials. Regulatory bodies have yet to designate limits on the usage of materials emitting radiation and how products using them are made and retailed.

Q. Have the radon mattresses stirred chemophobia in Korea?

In the last few years, Koreans have been very sensitive about the hidden danger of hazardous chemical substances. The real watershed moment was the 2011 humidifier sterilizer tragedy, which is still cited as the worst environmental crisis in Korea’s history.

Toxic sterilizers were sold in Korea from 2001. The product’s risks first came to light in 2011 after some pregnant women died of unidentified lung ailments. Local authorities launched a probe and concluded that the deaths were caused by PHMG, an antibacterial agent used in the humidifier sterilizer that can be fatal when inhaled.

Some 181 people were affected by the toxicity of the product, 73 of who died of a pulmonary disease, including children, between 2006 and 2011. Many of the survivors now breathe through a support device.

Last year another major controversy arose over sanitary pads after an environmental group released test results that suggested that 10 best-selling sanitary pads and panty liners emit excessive amounts of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds. Not all VOCs are hazardous upon long-term exposure, but several like benzene are linked to cancer.

The revelation of a little-known chemical substance hiding in such a common and personal product was enough to reignite the public’s chemophobia. The government rebutted the activist group’s claims, concluding in December that the products were all safe as they emitted too small an amount to cause health effects.

Chemophobia in Korea is fueled by a lack of trust in the government’s ability to detect and eliminate hazardous chemicals before they actually start to harm people, despite the existence of mandatory safety verifications before a product’s market release.

The humidifier sterilizer case and the radon mattress controversy are somewhat similar in that both products passed the government verification procedures despite containing materials that were internationally recognized as dangerous substances.

Q. Has the government done anything to tackle the issue?

The Korea Consumer Agency (KCA), a state-owned office specializing in consumer policies and safety, launched official procedures for a collective dispute resolution on July 1. The domestic consumer protection law states that if over 50 consumers see damage due to one particular product, the KCA can investigate to determine the correct amount of compensation.

As of June, nearly 3,000 people have requested the KCA’s involvement and the office will continue to receive applications throughout July.

The NSSC is operating a hotline that connects anxious consumers with radiological doctors. It also gave out free vinyl bags large enough to cover the mattresses for consumers waiting for them be collected.

However, civic groups have criticized the government for not reacting faster. Many consumers were left with the radon mattresses in their homes as Daijin struggled to respond to demand with just 30 workers. Critics argue that the government should have stepped in sooner to remove the potentially dangerous mattresses from people’s houses.

BY SEO JI-EUN, SONG KYOUNG-SON AND JIM BULLEY [seo.jieun@joongang.co.kr]
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