A social history of carbon monoxide poisoning in Korea in 1960s: From an accident due to carelessness to a social disease

Ock Joo Kim, Se Hong Park

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This paper deals with social history of carbon monoxide poisoning in Korea in 1960s. From the mid 1950s, Korean society began to use coal briquettes Yeontan) for fuel for cooking and heating in the winter, especially in urban area. As the use of coal briquettes replaced fire woods which had been used as fuel in traditional Korean society for centuries, incidence and deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning increased dramatically during the 1960s. The coal briquettes were used to heat the living rooms through "Ondol" arrangement. The coal briquettes at the kitchen place make the heated air and smoke, which pass through the horizontal space under a stone floor of the room and escape through chimney at the opposite site of the kitchen. This Ondol system could make leakage of carbon monoxide easily and thereby kill people who sleep in the room. In the 1960s, carbon monoxide poisoning by briquettes gas was a serious health problem to kill more people than all of the infectious diseases. It was a unique and very serious health hazard in 1960s Korea. No other place in the world has experienced such a high mortality and incidence from the briquettes gas as in Korea. Employing newspaper articles and epidemiological papers, this paper analyzes how the Korean society experienced and perceived carbon monoxide poisoning (CO poisoning) in 1960s. It also follows how the perception changed over time and how the changes affected social responses to CO poisoning. In the early 1960s, the CO poisoning was perceived as an accident due to carelessness of the people who did not fix the leakages of the Ondol system or that of the people who built the Ondol improperly. Mostly CO poisoning was the casualty caused by carelessness and ignorance of the poor class. The prevention measure was mainly education which would enlighten the ignorant so that they care about CO poisoning and their lives. It was the victims who were to be blamed, for they caused the their poisoning with their own carelessness. Since CO poisoning was perceived as preventable with a good care, people were optimistic about the prevention of the CO poisoning. In the late 1960s, however, the perception of CO poisoning changed as the epidemiological studies demonstrated meteorological, social, economical, and cultural factors were related to the poisoning. As CO poisoning was regarded not as an accident due to carelessness but as a social disease, the Korean government began to take various measures for its control including surveillance and punishment, education and certification of those who made Ondol, and funding research for detoxification of the poisoning. In spite of the state's intervention, the number of CO poisoning cases drastically increased every year. At the end of 1960s, in contrast to the optimism of the early 1960s, the outlook of CO poisoning control was grim. It was merely a beginning of huge epidemic of CO poisoning in 1970s and 1980s in Korea.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)279-344
Number of pages66
JournalKorean Journal of Medical History
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2012


  • Briquettes Gas
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
  • Social History
  • Social Response


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