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Result Announcement of the 3rd Korean National Environmental Health Survey

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 The National Institute of Environmental Research announced the concentration levels of environmentally harmful substances in the bodies of citizens including children and youth after expanding the survey target age range


The National Institute of Environmental Research (President Yoon-Seok Chang) announced the results of the 3rd Korean National Environmental Health Survey (hereinafter referred to as the 3rd KoNEHS) which was conducted from 2015 until 2017 to determine the exposure levels of citizens to environmentally harmful substances such as lead, mercury, etc. by examining urine and blood samples.

The 3rd KoNEHS expanded the survey target age range to include children over the age of 3 and youth under the age of 18 in contrast to the 1st and the 2nd surveys, both of which limited the target age range to adults.

1st KoNEHS (2009-2011) : 6,311 adults surveyed, 2nd KoNEHS (2012-2014) : 6,478 adults surveyed


The National Institute of Environmental Research has taken urine and blood samples from 6,167 people from 233 towns and neighborhoods and from 183 childcare and educational institutions and run an analysis to measure 26 types of environmentally harmful substance concentration levels. Furthermore, sources of exposure to the environmentally harmful substances have been identified through the survey.

Survey Target (6,167 people): 571 infants (preschoolers under the age of 3), 887 elementary school children, 922 middle and high school students, 3,787 adults (over the age of 19)

Substances tested (26 types): 

 3 types of heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium)

 15 types of endocrine disrupting chemicals and metabolome (bisphenol A, phthalates metabolites, etc.)

 4 types of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) metabolites

 2 types of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) metabolites

 1 type of agricultural pesticides metabolites

 1 type of tobacco smoke metabolites (cotinine)

 The survey results revealed that the concentration of lead was 0.80㎍/dL for the middle and high school students, and 1.60㎍/dL for the adults; the blood mercury level for the middle and high school students was 1.37㎍/L, and 2.75㎍/L for the adults, showing twice as high concentration levels for both blood lead and mercury levels among the adults.

Also noted was that blood lead and mercury levels for adults from the 1st survey (lead 1.77㎍/dL, mercury 3.08㎍/L) were somewhat lower than those from the 2nd survey (lead 1.94㎍/dL, mercury 3.11㎍/L).

For the infants and elementary school children group, environmentally harmful substances (25 types, except for lead) were tested only from urine samples due to the difficulties in taking blood samples.

The cadmium concentration showed a tendency to be higher from older test subjects (infants 0.11㎍/L < elementary school students 0.23㎍/L < middle and high school students 0.29㎍/L < adults 0.36㎍/L). In the case of adults, the concentration was lower than that from the 1st survey and similar to that from the 2nd survey. 

As for diethylhexyl phthalate(DEHP), a plasticizer, this showed 23.7㎍/L concentration level in adults, which was lower compared to the results from the 1st and the 2nd surveys. With 60.7㎍/L in infants, 48.7㎍/L in elementary school students, 23.4㎍/L in middle and high school students, the result showed that lower age groups had higher concentrations. 

The concentration levels of 2 types of diethylhexyl phthalate(DEHP) metabolites (MEHHP, MEOHP) were combined to be shown in the results. 

The above shown tendencies are similarly shown in the results of other domestic and international surveys. Average DEHP concentration level for every age group was lower than the recommended level by HBM-I*.  

* HBM-I: Recommended levels for no health risks, suggested with consideration to toxicity and epidemiology by Human Biomonitoring in Germany (DEHP ; 500㎍/L(age of 6∼13), 750㎍/L(14 and older))

Bisphenol A, known as a endocrine disrupting chemical, also had higher concentration in younger group (infants 2.41㎍/L > elementary school students 1.70㎍/L > middle and high school students 1.39㎍/L > adults 1.18㎍/L), but significantly lower compared to HBM-I recommended levels. 

* HBM-I recommended level for Bisphenol A: 100㎍/L(children), 200㎍/L(adults)

Children have higher food intake and respiration rates per body weight compared to adults (about 2-3 times), with behavioral traits such as playing on the floor and sucking on toys. That might cause higher concentration of environmentally harmful substances such as phthalates and bisphenol A in their bodies.

The 3rd survey began to test parabens (methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-). Methyl paraben, often used as a sterilizing preservative in personal hygiene products, cosmetics, etc., showed higher concentration in adult women (45.2㎍/L) than men (27.3㎍/L), which is similar to the results from surveys abroad. 

  However, other than the heavy usage by women of cosmetics, parabens are used to prevent decomposition or decay in various other sectors including pharmaceuticals and foods. Therefore, further research is necessary to clearly identify sources of exposure.

Paraben usage in cosmetics, preservatives, etc. is currently regulated with a percentage cap (Korea, EU, Japan), although the level of harmfulness to human body has not been clearly determined. 

Mr. Chul-woo Lee, Head of the Environmental Health Research Division, said, “Some of the environmentally harmful substances showed a lower presence compared to the 1st and 2nd surveys. We were able to identify differences in how children or youth get exposed to certain harmful substances compared to adults.” adding, “We will work to identify sources of exposure to the environmentally harmful substances and to reduce this by putting detailed investigation measures in place and continuous monitoring along with other efforts.”

The survey results will be released in an official statistic (No. 106027) for the public in early January 2019 through the Korean Statistical Information Service ( and the National Environmental Information Service ( Raw data such as the 3rd primary survey and its analysis will be provided in the first half of 2019.

In addition, the Ministry of Environment has been conducting the 4th Korean National Environmental Health Survey on 5,700 Korean citizens since 2018, running until 2020.

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Last modified : 2017-12-12 08:38

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