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Radioactive beds spark chemophobia across Korea

May 22,2018
Chemophobia is sweeping Korea after local mattresses were found to have been treated with a chemical element that is dangerously radioactive.

Consumer advocate groups gathered in front of the state-owned Nuclear Safety and Security Commission (NSSC) in central Seoul on Monday to protest against the manufacturer of the mattresses, Daijin Bed, and the government for their slow reactions to the scandal.

Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon mentioned the case in Monday’s cabinet meeting and promised countermeasures coordinated with multiple government offices other than the NSSC, which overlooked the case until last week. Then the NSSC made flip-flopping statements about the safety of the beds.

On May 5, a local media outlet reported that Daijin Bed mattresses were emitting excessive amounts of radon, a radioactive chemical element linked to lung cancer. The claims were later confirmed by the NSSC.

The inner covers of the mattresses were coated with negative ion powder, which the commission identified as monazite, a reddish-brown mineral that contains radioactive substances. Koreans believe negative ions are good for the health.

Daijin Bed, a 59-year-old company with only 30 or so employees, promised to recall seven models a few days after the revelation.

“Our hotline received more than 1,200 calls from consumers asking for advice since May 5,” said a statement from the Korean National Council of Consumer Organizations, a joint body of 11 advocacy groups that participated in Monday’s protest.

“The NCCS advised the mattress owners to halt usage of Daijin’s seven models in question and cover them in plastic until they are recalled. But Daijin has been difficult to reach and the collection process is not going through, aggravating consumers’ anxiety.”

The organization said that it received more than 200 reports of health issues from Daijin consumers including symptoms affecting the lungs, respiratory organs, thyroid glands and gynecological problems.

It requested the government to offer health tests for the victims and ways to safely discard the mattresses. It also called for a wide-range investigation into all products that may use chemicals that could be radioactive.

After its first round of investigations, the NCCS said in an interim announcement on May 10 that the amount of radon found in Daijin’s mattresses was within safety limits. Five days later, it concluded that seven of the brand’s mattress models emitted at least nine times the allowed amount of radon.

Prime Minister Lee apologized on Monday for the state-run office disturbing the public.

“Based on the judgment that the NCCS alone is not enough to handle the situation, the Office for Government Policy Coordination [run directly by the Blue House] started late last week to devise a government-wide response [to the issue] alongside multiple ministries of the environment, industry and drug safety,” he said.

A local law firm is preparing a collective lawsuit against Daijin Bed. An online community for Daijin victims now has over 13,000 members. More than 1,900 people are reported to have signed up for damage claims.

A core question is whether Daijin should be held accountable for using the powder. The company said in a statement that it believed the powder was made from chilbosuk, a mineral widely used for its effect of producing negative ions. It added that it wasn’t until a local media outlet reported on the radon emission that it confirmed the matter with its supplier. Then it found out that the powder was actually made from monazite.

For consumers, radon is now a dangerous chemical that may be residing in their homes. Last week, the NCCS said that the monazite importer that supplied Daijin had sold the substance to 65 other Korean companies. Online commerce site eNuri.com said that sales of detectors for radioactive substances spiked nearly 11 times in May compared to the previous month.


BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]