South Korea Methyl Methacrylate Market: South Korea grapples with Methyl Methacrylate crisis

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South Korea Methyl Methacrylate Market: South Korea grapples with Methyl Methacrylate crisis
On September 13, 2014, a vapour leak at an LG Chem subsidiary factory in the port city of Yeosu, South Jeolla Province caused the death of five workers.

South Korea Methyl Methacrylate Market: South Korea grapples with Methyl Methacrylate crisis

A deadly vapour leak led to mass protests against South Korea Methyl Methacrylate Market

On September 13, 2014, a vapour leak at an LG Chem subsidiary factory in the port city of Yeosu, South Jeolla Province caused the death of five workers. Over a dozen others were left hospitalised due to serious injuries sustained from inhaling methyl methacrylate (MMA), the toxic chemical that leaked. MMA is a volatile organic compound predominantly used to manufacture acrylic sheets and plastics. The horrific incident sparked public outrage and brought to fore long-simmering safety concerns regarding handling and storage of MMA in South Korea's industrial zones.

Calls for tighter regulations 

In the aftermath of the Yeosu accident, civic groups and victims' families demanded stronger regulations to prevent future tragedies. A key demand was imposing stricter limits on the storage and transportation of Methyl Methacrylate. At the time, factories were allowed to keep up to 300 tonnes of MMA onsite without additional safety measures. Critics argued this was far too high a threshold and increased risks of mass casualty accidents. Protests were organised calling on the government to reduce MMA stockpile limits at industrial facilities. Citizens also voiced lack of trust in companies' compliance with existing safety protocols. This prompted authorities to undertake a nationwide safety inspection of petrochemical plants and revise guidelines.

New Rules, Greater Oversight

In 2015, the Ministry of Employment and Labor rolled out more stringent MMA management rules. The permitted onsite storage limit was reduced to 50 tonnes from the earlier 300 tonnes. Plants were required to install advanced leak monitoring and detection systems. Transportation of MMA was restricted to containers that prevented spillage or exposure. The ministry also enhanced factory inspections to verify compliance. This included random checks as well as investigations in the event of any reported accidents or leaks. At the same time, local councils were empowered to take independent actions if safety lapses were identified. These measures aimed to assure the public of close government oversight over MMA handling.

However, Balancing Interests Remains A Challenge

While efforts have been made to fortify regulatory oversight, fully addressing stakeholders' diverse interests continues to be tricky. For industry, lower stockpile limits and additional safety requirements drive up operating costs. There are concerns this could dent the competitiveness of chemical firms in global markets. On the other hand, communities near industrial clusters argue existing policies do not sufficiently eliminate risks and demand a total ban on MMA. Finding common ground between these polarised viewpoints is difficult. Some analysts argue that the revised regulations still allow relatively large MMA quantities to be stored on plant premises at any given time. Local protests highlighting safety risks persist in areas with clusters of chemical factories. Striking the right policy balance will take ongoing negotiation and fine-tuning of norms.

Could Alternate Technologies Provide A Solution? 

As debates around tighter MMA regulation continue, explorations are underway to develop substitutes for current industrial applications. One promising alternative being researched is the use of methacrylic acid (MAA), a less hazardous derivative of MMA, to manufacture acrylic sheets and plastics. While MAA polymerisation technology is still in development phases, successful commercialisation could help significantly reduce dependence on MMA. Few pilot projects using MAA-based production processes have shown encouraging results. If scaled up, this could help meet materials demand while allaying community safety worries regarding MMA storage and handling. However, challenges remain in making substitute solutions cost-competitive given MMA's current entrenched market position. Continuous R&D support will be needed to accelerate technologies that can provide a long-term, sustainable alternative to MMA use in South Korea's chemical industry.

In summary, balancing safety, economic and regulatory priorities around MMA remains a complex challenge for South Korea. While the 2015 reforms aimed to reinforce safety after the Yeosu accident, risks persist according to critics. Developing substitute technologies could offer an optimal solution by removing the need for large-scale MMA storage and transportation in industrial clusters.


In Summary, fostering economically viable alternatives will require sustained efforts from policymakers, researchers and industry alike. Striking an optimal policy and technological solution will be key to resolving long-standing tensions surrounding South Korea methyl methacrylate market use in the country. Ongoing review of regulations, monitoring of compliance as well as support for R&D on substitutes can help pave the path towards an enduring resolution of this issue.


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