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South Korea ignored warnings about the dangers of asbestos. Now it has a major health problem. Are other Asian countries next?
GWANGCHEON, South Korea — Tucked away where express trains don't stop, two small villages sit near a mountain that once housed Asia's largest asbestos mine. For decades, villagers young and old would sit for hours in a cloud of white dust clinking their small rock hammers.
The carcinogenic particles that enveloped the mines came west with the wind, covering roofs, laundry lines and dinner tables, and left thousands of miners with deadly respiratory diseases.
But only at the turn of the century did anyone make the connection. Now, the South Korean government is fumbling to deal with the growing number of victims, who include not only workers but also residents who lived near asbestos mines and factories.
The villagers, many of whom still inhabit this serene town three hours from Seoul, were shocked to learn they could be victims of their former livelihood. As other countries banned asbestos use, warnings about the danger of the mineral went unacknowledged in South Korea, and now the consequences are starting to show.
Although large-scale mining mostly ended in the 1980s, symptoms of asbestos often don't appear for decades, making it difficult to know the number of victims. Health experts say there could be tens of thousands. Those who have learned of their deteriorating condition doubt compensation will come in time.
South Korea's dependence on asbestos was by no means unique. Use of the carcinogenic mineral has spread across the world as countries have industrialized. For many Asian nations, South Korea's tale is a harbinger of things to come.
Hands coated in dust
It did not escape notice that miners in the Gwangcheon area tended to die at a young age, but with the country's lack of knowledge about asbestos, no one knew why. Symptoms frequently don't show up for at least 20 years after exposure, a period long enough to mask the dangers.
Asbestos mining came to Korea in the 1940s with Japanese colonial rule, providing material for military supplies and then cheap construction parts during Korea’s rapid development period. As Korea moved up the economic ladder, the so-called dirty work moved to countries such as Indonesia and China, according to activists who work to combat asbestos use.
The first documented case of an asbestos-related death dates to 1924, reported in the British Medical Journal, involving a woman who died after working in the card room of an asbestos textile mill for 13 years. The researcher, W.E. Cooke, would three years later name the disease "asbestosis."
It took until the 1980s for the mineral to be banned in the United States and the 1990s in Japan. Roughly 90,000 workers are said to die each year because of exposure to asbestos at work, according to 2004 records from the World Health Organization. South Korea officially prohibited the use of asbestos this year.