The deadly air they breathed

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.

Today the winding, unpaved roads are not much different than during the mining days, recalled Jung Ji-yol, whose ancestors lived in the Gwangcheon area for centuries. People would line up on those dusty roads to hike to the mines that still separate one village from the other.

The mines were like schools for the villages — everyone made their way there every day at a regular hour. It was a routine that not many questioned, and one that produced small sums of money for poor families scrounging for food.

More skilled workers dug tunnels and inserted explosives, while the younger amateurs were left to pick asbestos from rocks. It was a place where everyone was free to come and go.

“The mine was my playground,” said Jung, who is now 66 and has returned to the village to farm. “I never knew at the time that it was dangerous. If I had, I would’ve at least washed my hands and mouth coated with asbestos dust before eating my meals.”

Jung joined the mining crowds as a teenager shortly after the Korean War, working there for about two years before leaving for the city. He now carries the deadly asbestos fibers in his lungs.

The fibers, thinner than human hair, can easily get lodged in the lungs, never to exit the body. There are three major health effects associated with asbestos exposure: asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Asbestosis, which is the scarring of lung tissue caused by inhaling asbestos fibers, causes breathing difficulties, and roughly a third of patients later die of lung cancer. With malignant mesothelioma, a cancer caused only by asbestos, patients usually die within a year of being diagnosed.

There are currently no cures for asbestos-related diseases.

The first shockwave

Park Young-koo, who worked in an asbestos factory for eight years, explains the progression of the disease in simple terms: first comes the coughing, then, slopes become difficult to climb, walking turns into a strain, and finally, breathing without an oxygen mask is impossible.

Park spent nearly a decade working in a factory in Busan, at the southern tip of the country. Today Busan is a booming city that carries a flavor of Seoul, but until the early 1990s it had operating asbestos textile factories. Exposure at these types of plants is considered to be the most hazardous.

“It was like fog in the entire factory as soon as I stepped inside. It was so bad that I couldn’t see what was in front of me,” said Park, 55, who worked in a factory alongside his wife in the 1970s and now suffers from asbestosis.

His wife died in 1995 after living through respiratory troubles for a decade.

“She was coughing at first like she had a cold. You see, it always starts out like a cold,” Park said. “I saw everything. I know what kind of pain you have to go through if you have asbestosis. It drives me crazy.”

“She was only 38 when she died,” Park said as he wiped tears off his face. Even the large hospitals where she received treatment could not explain the cause but two years ago a story broke in a local paper about dying asbestos factory workers in Busan. It was the first red alert that caught people’s attention and prompted civic groups and the government to investigate the environment surrounding mines.

Park can count at least 32 former colleagues from the factory who are dead. “Those who were with me in the '70s, they’re all either dead or sick.”

Park still has to pay off debt from hospital bills, and he has yet to receive workers’ compensation. As the number of victims started to grow rapidly in the last two years, Park said, it has been difficult for him to win approval from the compensation and welfare service office.

He needs to prove he has a disability, made difficult by the slow progression of his disease. Park barely makes a living by doing odd jobs like building maintenance.

Most of the people who worked in the textile factories with Park were just out of middle or high school and are now in their 40s or 50s.

“The government isn’t even blinking at the matter. That’s where the problem lies,” Park said. Workers and family members from Busan, including Park, have filed class actions suits against the company and government, but they are waiting for their cases to conclude.

Park’s endless waiting has worn him down, and he is no doubt angry with the government. But the former factory worker almost blames himself for his misfortune. He believes the visible development of his country that he once took part in was only for the rich and privileged, not for powerless people like himself.

Ticking clock

But even as awareness of the disease grows, it often seems like there is little that can be done. Much of the frustration felt by asbestos factory and mine victims comes from the lack of awareness about the dangers of the cancer-causing substance.

The Ministry of Environment is now planning to examine at least 8,000 residents in the south Chungcheong province by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Busan city government is tracking down people who lived in a 550-yard radius of asbestos textile factories between 1971 and 1978, when the most dangerous form of the mineral was used.

On both fronts, progress is slow.

“The illness is slow in maturing. It’s not like the victims are going to suddenly all die, and they are mostly in their late years. That’s why there is so little attention given to the issue,” said Kim Hyoung Ryoul, a doctor who collects data on asbestos-related diseases at Catholic University’s Industrial Medical Center in Seoul.

Another expert, Kang Dongmug based in Busan, said the government simply doesn’t have the capability to screen people in such large numbers. Data from other countries indicate that residents living within a one to six mile range of asbestos operations can be affected. That would mean 440,000 people in Busan alone, according to Kang at Pusan National University’s Research Center for Asbestos Related Diseases.

Movements for much-awaited compensation laws have progressed slowly. “There’s a tendency in this society to be non-responsive to dangers that are not visible and have not taken a form in reality yet,” said Kim Sang-hee, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party.

Kim drafted a compensation law, which was presented before the National Assembly in March but has not been passed. The law would enable asbestos-related workers, victims of indirect exposure and families of the bereaved to receive money for treatment and a modest stipend.

“A lot of our policies are at the level of chasing what advanced countries do. Even so, if we need to follow others then I want it to at least be done quickly,” Kim said.

And with Japan and Korea as the only Asian countries to ban use of asbestos, nearly half of the world’s asbestos consumption is still coming from this region, mainly in countries such as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, according to data in the 2007 World Asbestos Report.

Fighting apathy

Victims from the mining towns and factories know they do not have the luxury to sit and wait for the government to make its move.

Jung Ji-yol, the former miner, visits other victims in the two small villages and informs them of any asbestos-related activities. Others are too busy with farming, but Jung is able to juggle his schedule to squeeze in farming, campaigning for increased awareness and giving government officials tours of the mines, which are now fenced off from the public.

He admits he struggles with the new strains on his respiratory system on top of the diabetes he already had. But ignorance and signs of surrender from other victims are what really drains him.

“No one even asks me what the new developments are,” he said as he leafed through records from a parliamentary public hearing. Even so, Jung spends his own money busing villagers up to the city to attend meetings.

“We need to soon stage our own protest or something,” he told 64-year-old Ji Hee-seok, who also suffers from asbestosis. “We might even need to get together with the Busan folks at some point,” he added.

Ji, who had never worked in the mines, nodded emphatically. She believes living right next to the train station where asbestos was loaded several times a day caused her illness.

“We couldn’t even put our laundry out, and how it hurt my throat hurt all the time,” Ji said. She said her home, where she lived for 10 years, was blanketed with white dust, in other words asbestos, at all times.

Jung reminds Ji that compensation will not come soon. He expects it will take at least another year to start seeing results.

“We want to see action now. What are they going to do after we’re all dead?” Jung said. “We want to be able to spend compensation money while we’re alive.” 

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