Baku, November 3, AZERTAC/Yonhap
For Kim Song-won, a 36-year-old office worker living in Seoul, it is not just a matter of having a healthier life but a matter of survival to try going chemical-free.
Suffering from various skin allergies caused by soap, shampoo, rinse and others that contain chemical ingredients for the better part of his life, Kim has been avoiding such seemingly harmless daily necessities as much as possible, according to Yonhap news agency.
Years back, he even tried to go without shampoo, among other things, for about a month but realized that it was too inconvenient and ended up settling with the smallest amount needed for personal hygiene purposes.
His aversion to anything chemical, however, has intensified recently due to the renewed attention to the safety issue with regard to major products ranging from humidifier disinfectants and air purifier filters to even toothpaste.
"I never use any spray-types of products and others that can be inhaled such as mosquito repellent, diffusers, perfume, air fresheners, not to mention of soap and other chemical-rich hygiene products," he said.
"Friends call me crazy and say you should go easy on all of this. But especially since I was diagnosed earlier this year with a lung problem, though it was not a serious one, efforts to stay away from chemicals have become a matter of survival," he added.
He is one of the growing number of people who join the trend of minimizing the use of chemicals following a series of media reports that shed light on their possibly deadly impact.
Some even join the so-called "no-poo" or "no-chemi" tribes who try to get rid of shampoo or chemicals altogether from their daily lives.
Health fears flared up as humidifier disinfectants were blamed for the deaths of four pregnant women in 2011. A government-led investigation confirmed a connection between more than a hundred people who died of lung problems and the chemicals used to clean household humidifiers.
In April this year, years after the case was first reported, Oxy Reckitt Benckiser apologized and promised compensation, but it was seen as a belated apology which was not enough to assuage consumers' fears. Some took retaliatory action by boycotting Oxy products here.
South Korea has confirmed 221 victims in the case. Among them, 177 had used Oxy products. Out of 90 death, 70 are believed to have been caused by products made by the British firm.
A heightened health scare has spilled over into other products including air purifier filters on suspicion that they might be containing chemicals harmful to human bodies. In September, AmorePacific was also ordered to recall some of its toothpaste products on fears that they contain the same chemicals blamed for the humidifier disinfectant-related death.
Amid the increasing health scare, consumers are getting more suspicious about the safety of chemical products even when they are produced by household-name large companies.
According to a recent poll conducted by Consumers Korea after the Oxy scandal, 87 percent expressed concerns about the safety of chemical products, while 70 percent said that they plan to buy replacements with no or fewer chemicals.
Hong Hye-ran, a mother of two children, is among them.
Saddened by the loss of children and upset about the apparent disregard of people's lives by such large companies, she breathed a sigh of relief on the decision she grudgingly made a long time ago to minimize the use of any kinds of chemicals in raising her children.
A TV documentary program on the harm that chemical-containing products could have on the human body changed her lifestyle about 10 years ago.
Ever since, she has replaced the humidifier with water-soaked towels, kitchen cleaners with baking soda and removed all chemical sprays that her family can inhale.
"I was shocked by and angry with the outright disregard for people by such large companies and well-known brands," she said. "I'm sorry to hear about the loss of the precious lives but on the other hand, I am thankful that I took such chemical-removing steps early for my children."
People's awareness of safety has also increased as they tend to spend more time doing research on each and every chemical used in producing consumer goods including cosmetics.
Such apps as "hwahae" that offer detailed information on ingredients used in cosmetics and their impact on skin have been popular especially among safety-conscious consumers.
Some are even more proactive, going beyond simply shopping for products made of natural ingredients to try their hand at making them on their own, a growing trend that lead to a spike in sales of such natural ingredients as baking soda, citric acid and vinegar in recent months, according to retail data.
The "do-it-yourself" efforts are gaining traction as they allow consumers to have a say on what chemicals will be used, if necessary, and their daily necessities in accordance with their individual needs.
"The recent Oxy and other cases have surely helped raise people's awareness of safety," said Kim U-rim, who runs a shop in Seoul that offers classes on how to make anything all natural. "Transparency is the key here."
She said that classes at her shop have been booked up and more people, including friends and family, have been asking questions about how to make this and that.
Kim, a mother of two kids herself, believes that natural soap, shampoo and other household products are just like "home-cooked meals" that surely take more time and money but eventually will be good for your health.
Inconvenience that ensues might be the biggest hurdle that stands in the way for people to go chemical-free, she noted.
"I don't believe that the interest in natural goods will last long as has been the case years ago when people got shocked by health scare reports but soon went back to their daily routines," she said.
"At a time when you can buy much cheaper ones just around the corner, who would bother with all these cumbersome processes. Inconvenience is a major element that makes many people remain hesitant," she said.
What's more, she doesn't see a chemical-free lifestyle as a plausible and practical choice.
"I am not sure I should be categorized as a no-chemi person, but I rarely use chemical products since almost everything can be made of natural materials," she said.
"But I would not accept a no-chemi as my student. Living with no chemicals whatsoever is a tall order in the modern world. Being perfect on anything is quite difficult and irritating. Sometimes you should take one or two things for granted," she said with a smile on her face.
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