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Environ Health Toxicol > Volume 33:2018 > Article
Kim: Reminiscing on 35 years with Environmental Toxicology in Korea
It has been long time since I participated in the annual meeting of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), which was held near the Pentagon at the Hyatt Hotel, Crystal City, Virginia in 1983 when I was studying for my Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental Toxicology, U.C. Davis. I might have been the first Korean at that conference and I vaguely remember that so many scientists working on Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry were not only from academia, but also from government and industry, even from NGOs. Many papers—I do not recall how many, but it was many more than I have ever seen in Korea–were presented covering many fields of expertise which I had never known of. Later, I heard that the SETAC had been separated from the Society of Toxicology. Years later, I met Dr. Byoung Han Chin of the U.S. EPA and Dr. Namkung Eun of Procter & Gamble at several SETAC conferences.
After I came back to Korea in 1985, I participated in the inaugural annual conference of the Korean Society of Environmental Toxicology (KSET) in 1986. I later heard that KSET had been separated from the Korean Society of Toxicology. I remember I presented a paper and had a heated discussion with Professor Byung Moo Lee of Sungkyunkwan University. Afterwards, he and I always exchanged heated debate on various issues at numerous scientific meetings as scientists. I feel I am lucky to have had that kind of relationship with him. We were always critical and came from different scientific points of view, even if we did not have any closer personal or social friendship at all. I think we had been interestingly educated and trained that way.
Through my 25-year service at the Korea Institute of Toxicology (KIT) from 1985 to 2009, I had the opportunity to cooperate with experts in various academic disciplines: veterinary medicine, biology, toxicology, chemistry, and ecotoxicology.
During my service at KIT, I was given two opportunities to work abroad: one for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in 1995-1998 in Vienna, Austria, and the other for the U.S. EPA at the Office of Pesticide Program (OPP) in 2004-2005 in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. The role at the former organization was to disseminate knowledge and technology for environmental toxicology established in Korea to neighboring developing countries. The mission at the latter organization was learning the method of risk assessment for the registration of pesticides in the U.S.A. During these periods, I was able to learn the practical application of the discipline of environmental toxicology to both developing and developed countries.
After retirement from my service at KIT at the end of 2009, in 2011 and for 5 years afterwards, I was requested by the Korean Center for Disease Control to be heavily involved in the Humidifier Disinfectant Incidence of my country, starting from identification of causative agents until publication of the White Paper on the incidence as the project leader. Through the unfortunate chemical incidence in my country, I worked with many medical doctors, epidemiologists, human pathologists, and public health specialists. I also had to communicate with social workers and journalists. Through this period of multiple commitments, I became very confident that this kind of multidisciplinary expertise in environmental toxicology is in serious need for my society, and that it is linked with the life and death of hundreds and thousands of my fellow citizens, which I had never imagined during my regular school education and the on-the-job training. At the same time, I realized that there is still a certain need to train/educate about the discipline of environmental toxicology for persons in the fields of humanities and sociology.
In the meantime, I was involved in the management of the KSET for a long time and served as a president of the society. Based on my experience with the SETAC as a manager of the society, I hoped to manage the KSET with two principal goals: maintaining self-sufficiency of the society with minimal financial support from industry and that membership of the society is equally represented by academia, government, and industry. The first goal was triggered by a conversation with Professor Kyu-Hyuck Chung, Dean, School of Pharmacy, Sungkyunkwan University, who contacted a cosmetics company for soliciting financial support for the society. The CEO of the company iterated “I am sorry, but if we support a society with a name containing toxicology, our clients might suspect our products are toxic or having safety problems.” The second goal could not be easily fulfilled until now because the research infrastructure of the government and industry is still not activated or open to the public release of business information, which is still quite different from the situation in the U.S.A. in 1983.
I had an opportunity to serve the SETAC-Asia Pacific with the very active scientists Dr. Graeme Batley of Australia and Dr. Chris Hickey of New Zealand. I organized a SETAC-AP workshop in Seoul in 1998 with the sponsorship of UNIDO and Procter and Gamble, just after termination of my service at UNIDO. Through several meetings with Graeme, Chris, and other key country representatives, we agreed that the geographical, economical, and political barriers in the Asia-Pacific area are significantly higher than other regional chapters of SETAC. Therefore, the management of SETAC-AP should exert more effort on overcoming those hindrances, such as financial support for members in less developed countries.
I am now serving at the National University of Laos, Vientiane Capital, Lao PDR. There were previously no classes in Toxicology, Environmental Chemistry, or Environmental Toxicology. During the fall semester of 2016, I opened classes in toxicology, environmental chemistry, and risk assessment. Of course, there is no academic society for these fields in this country. I am not sure what will happen in this country, if potentially a similar kind of Humidifier Disinfectant Incidence could break out. When I decided to leave my country for Laos, I felt confident that the critical mass of my junior scientists in the field of environmental toxicology would be enough for coping with any kind of imminent chemical concerns in Korea.
When I teach students here in Laos, I often tell them, “You should be prepared to prevent and solve the sort of chemical incidences that have happened in more industrialized countries, like Korea and China, which will surely come to your country in 1, 5, 10, 20, or 30 years. It is my sincere hope that Laos will not have a similar chemical incidence like the Humidifier Disinfectant Incidence in my country.”
I owe all my extraordinary opportunities and performance in environmental toxicology and chemistry to the following considerate mentors: Professor Chun-Yung Lee at Seoul National University, Professor Su-Rae Lee at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI), Professor James N. Seiber at the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Jung-Koo Rho and Dr. Sang-Seop Hahn at KIT. I also want to acknowledge, herewith, the valuable assistance of my junior co-workers in research at KIT: Dr. Kyun Kim, Dr. Hee-Ra Chang, Dr. Yong-Ju Lee, Dr. Jung-Hwan Kwon, Dr. Sung-Kyu Lee, and Dr. Dong-Hyuk Yeom.
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