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Quarantine officials under fire for polluting river with anti-ASF disinfectant

A government helicopter loaded with anti-ASF disinfectant solution is seen flying above Paju, just south of the North Korean border, Oct. 4, 2019, prior to spraying to curb the spread of African Swine Fever. / Yonhap
A government helicopter loaded with anti-ASF disinfectant solution is seen flying above Paju, just south of the North Korean border, Oct. 4, 2019, prior to spraying to curb the spread of African Swine Fever. / Yonhap

By Lee Suh-yoon

Quarantine officials are facing criticism for allegedly causing damage to the Imjin River ecosystem by spreading a toxic disinfectant along the North Korean border to curb the spread of African Swine Fever (ASF), according to environmental activists, Tuesday.

Quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as Quats, were found in the disinfectant solution that helicopters indiscriminately sprayed over parts of the Imjin River and the DMZ to stop the virus from traveling south. So far, there have been 72 reported cases of ASF in wild boars near the border with North Korea.

A powerful antibacterial agent, Quats are found in detergents and other household cleaning solutions. Though effective at cleaning hog farms, some studies have shown that high concentrations of the chemical can be fatal to fish populations.

The problem surfaced last week, after a group of local fishermen in Paju reported a drastic drop in the Imjin River's fish stocks. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) ― which is in charge of the ASF quarantine ― immediately rebutted the fishermen's claims that the drop in fishing stock could be related to the anti-ASF solution, saying it only used environmentally-friendly disinfectants that "break down easily in the environment and do not accumulate in living matter."

Barbed wire fences have been set up along the Imjin River at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province. / Yonhap
Barbed wire fences have been set up along the Imjin River at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province. / Yonhap

However, a follow-up report by the local Hankyoreh daily newspaper painted a different story. According to the report, Quats have been included in disinfectant solutions sprayed over Paju and Yeongcheon in northern Gyeonggi Province since late September last year. Local governments chose and provided the solutions to the ministry, which is in charge of the aerial dissemination, and Paju City and Yeoncheon County provided ones with a 10 percent concentration of Quats. The Quat compound used by Yeoncheon was a DDAC, which studies have shown to be fatal to fish as well as causing sterility and deformation in mice.

This went on for a month without proper oversight, until MAFRA finally discovered the situation in late October and demanded local governments to provide more eco-friendly disinfectant solutions.

"What we feared has been confirmed. There was no control tower with the anti-ASF aerial operations," Noh Hyun-ki, head of the Paju branch of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, told The Korea Times. "They just took whatever Paju, Yeoncheon or Cheolwon gave them and recklessly sprayed it all over [the quarantine region]."


When contacted by The Korea Times, MAFRA officials declined to comment on the matter, saying they were not ready to confirm the reports. The environment ministry, however, released a statement late Tuesday saying it would test the Imjin River water for contamination. It did not try to deny media reports that Quats had been released into the ecosystem between Sept. 29 and Oct. 23, before MAFRA ordered local governments to switch to disinfectants based on citric acid.

Environmental activists and residents want quarantine officials to transparently share all information on chemicals dispersed over the region and conduct a study into their environmental impact.

"The government needs to start considering the environmental and socioeconomic impact of quarantine measures to prevent similar mistakes in the future," Noh said.

The quarantine authorities recently clashed with Yeoncheon residents following water contamination from a burial site for culled pigs.



A government helicopter loaded with anti-ASF disinfectant solution is seen flying above Paju, just south of the North Korean border, Oct. 4, 2019, prior to spraying to curb the spread of African Swine Fever. / Yonhap
A government helicopter loaded with anti-ASF disinfectant solution is seen flying above Paju, just south of the North Korean border, Oct. 4, 2019, prior to spraying to curb the spread of African Swine Fever. / Yonhap

By Lee Suh-yoon

Quarantine officials are facing criticism for allegedly causing damage to the Imjin River ecosystem by spreading a toxic disinfectant along the North Korean border to curb the spread of African Swine Fever (ASF), according to environmental activists, Tuesday.

Quaternary ammonium compounds, also known as Quats, were found in the disinfectant solution that helicopters indiscriminately sprayed over parts of the Imjin River and the DMZ to stop the virus from traveling south. So far, there have been 72 reported cases of ASF in wild boars near the border with North Korea.

A powerful antibacterial agent, Quats are found in detergents and other household cleaning solutions. Though effective at cleaning hog farms, some studies have shown that high concentrations of the chemical can be fatal to fish populations.

The problem surfaced last week, after a group of local fishermen in Paju reported a drastic drop in the Imjin River's fish stocks. The Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (MAFRA) ― which is in charge of the ASF quarantine ― immediately rebutted the fishermen's claims that the drop in fishing stock could be related to the anti-ASF solution, saying it only used environmentally-friendly disinfectants that "break down easily in the environment and do not accumulate in living matter."

Barbed wire fences have been set up along the Imjin River at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province. / Yonhap
Barbed wire fences have been set up along the Imjin River at Yeoncheon, Gyeonggi Province. / Yonhap

However, a follow-up report by the local Hankyoreh daily newspaper painted a different story. According to the report, Quats have been included in disinfectant solutions sprayed over Paju and Yeongcheon in northern Gyeonggi Province since late September last year. Local governments chose and provided the solutions to the ministry, which is in charge of the aerial dissemination, and Paju City and Yeoncheon County provided ones with a 10 percent concentration of Quats. The Quat compound used by Yeoncheon was a DDAC, which studies have shown to be fatal to fish as well as causing sterility and deformation in mice.

This went on for a month without proper oversight, until MAFRA finally discovered the situation in late October and demanded local governments to provide more eco-friendly disinfectant solutions.

"What we feared has been confirmed. There was no control tower with the anti-ASF aerial operations," Noh Hyun-ki, head of the Paju branch of the Korean Federation for Environmental Movement, told The Korea Times. "They just took whatever Paju, Yeoncheon or Cheolwon gave them and recklessly sprayed it all over [the quarantine region]."


When contacted by The Korea Times, MAFRA officials declined to comment on the matter, saying they were not ready to confirm the reports. The environment ministry, however, released a statement late Tuesday saying it would test the Imjin River water for contamination. It did not try to deny media reports that Quats had been released into the ecosystem between Sept. 29 and Oct. 23, before MAFRA ordered local governments to switch to disinfectants based on citric acid.

Environmental activists and residents want quarantine officials to transparently share all information on chemicals dispersed over the region and conduct a study into their environmental impact.

"The government needs to start considering the environmental and socioeconomic impact of quarantine measures to prevent similar mistakes in the future," Noh said.

The quarantine authorities recently clashed with Yeoncheon residents following water contamination from a burial site for culled pigs.



Lee Suh-yoon sylee@koreatimes.co.kr


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