+ A

Residents are stuck with radon-riddled Busan homes

Nov 30,2018
Residents of a public housing project in Busan are fuming after a resident detected high levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer, in his building earlier this month.

After seeing a news article about radon in apartments, the resident bought a measurement device to make sure that he and his pregnant wife were not being affected by the dangerous gas. His measurement showed that his apartment was filled with radon gas.

The measurements were five times higher than the Health Ministry’s limit for radon, which is 200 becquerel, a unit of radiation, per cubic meter.

Surprised, he quickly posted on the apartment boards on Nov. 11 to make sure that his neighbors knew about the situation. Soon afterwards, the news of the radioactive gas reached the ears of all 5,000 residents living in the apartment complex.

Radon usually enters buildings through microscopic cracks in their foundations and usually builds up in the buildings’ lowest levels since it is heavier than oxygen. As uranium decays, it produces radon and since uranium is commonly found in various types of rocks, the residential community came to a consensus that the toxic air has been coming from the marble floors in the bathroom, which appear in every apartment.

“My kids keep their toothbrushes in that bathroom and I often take long baths in the tub, which is not so far above the marble floor,” said resident Kim. “I’m so furious whenever I remind myself I have been drinking in all that toxic air ever since I came here in July of 2014.”

The residents organized an emergency response committee and tried to get rid of the flooring themselves.

Because they live in a public housing complex, residents cannot make major changes to their units. The construction company in charge said it would not heed residents’ demand to remove the flooring. The company said it would cost 2 billion won ($1.78 million) to replace the marble flooring for all 5,000 apartments in the complex, and as of yet, they haven’t been ordered by any government body to do so.

As residents’ discussions with the construction company came to a standstill, they urged the Busan Metropolitan Government to come up with an emergency measure to secure their safety. Officials from the city government came to check the radon levels on Nov. 14, and they announced that the radon levels were just one-sixth of the permissible amount.

However, according to residents, the government officials didn’t use proper measurement techniques.

“Radon is heavier than oxygen, which is why you’re supposed to put the measuring device close to the floor to get an accurate result,” said Lee Jeong-hun, the representative of the emergency response committee. “The measuring instrument [that the city government brought in] was placed in the air.” The city government only measured two apartments, which also raised suspicions about its findings.

The Busan government responded with a promise to re-examine the area with a radon task force early in December. Nothing much can be done even if they do detect high levels of radon. The local government only has the authority to warn the construction agency to comply with the wishes of the residents. The residents’ only recourse may be an investigation by the National Nuclear Safety and Security Commission.

BY LEE EUN-JI, JEONG JU-WON [jeong.juwon@joongang.co.kr]