South Koreans turn to greener household products in wake of tragedy

Oxy Out - South Korea protests
© Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

It has taken far too many deaths and illnesses to make this germ-phobic nation realize the hidden dangers lurking in household products, but now that awareness has been generated, real change is underway.

For years, South Koreans were told that the humidifier disinfectants they purchased for their homes were safe. The disinfectants were marketed toward families whose children used humidifiers to cope with South Korea’s dry climate. But then people started getting sick. As soon as they were linked to lung damage in 2011, the products were pulled from shelves by the Center for Disease Control.

Since then, the severity of the situation has become clearer. There have been 96 deaths in the country linked to toxic chemicals in those disinfectants, including four pregnant women, and 400 additional reports of lung damage and other related illnesses. The manufacturer is Oxy, a local subsidiary of Dutch conglomerate Reckitt Benckiser. It issued a formal apology last month, but, not surprisingly, the apology has done little to soothe the anger of countless South Koreans, many of whom now must live with chronic lung damage.

Oxy Out - South Korea© Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The tragedy has led to some interesting developments, as South Koreans realize the hidden dangers that exist in household chemicals. Coming from a country that has long been obsessed with eradicating germs and disinfecting every surface, this is a major change in mindset.

The Economist reports:

“Chemical sanitisation in homes and offices is prized as a sign of the country’s rapid progress since its economic take-off in the 1980s lifted millions from squalor and disease. Killing germs, says Lee Duck-hwan, a professor of chemistry and communication at Sogang University in Seoul, became the ‘single most important topic of daily discussions’ in the 1980s. Since then, everything from baby soap to washing machines has claimed to act as a steriliser—something Mr Lee decries as ‘phobia marketing’. So it is a particular blow when it turns out that products which should improve cleanliness might do harm.”

Now, South Koreans are voluntarily making the transition to less toxic products. Some are learning DIY techniques for making safer household and body cleansers. Many are avoiding disinfectants, wet wipes, and air fresheners altogether. A chain of organic stores called Dure Co-op is urging customers to dump their unwanted Oxy products in a bin at the entrance, as part of a nation-wide boycott.

“The manager of the co-operative says that more have been buying up ‘green’ household products, especially since the ‘no-poo’ movement, which renounces shampoo, caught on in South Korea last year. South Korean newspapers now refer to this new group as the ‘no-chemi clan’ (The Economist).”

While the Oxy scandal is undeniably tragic, it is hopeful to see such widespread awareness growing out of the human losses. The more people understand the serious dangers to which we expose our bodies by using powerful germ-killing chemicals in our homes, the better off we’ll all be in the long run. Perhaps South Korea will become an example and inspiration to the rest of the world, much of which continues to be mired in daily toxic chemical use.

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