Asbestos in South Koreas Schools
At a press conference in Jongno-gu, Seoul on May 25, 2022, researchers from the Korean Citizens Center for Environmental Health, the National School Parents Network to Ban Asbestos in Schools and the Korean Ban Asbestos Network informed journalists that 4-5 out of 10 elementary, middle and high schools nationwide are still asbestos schools.1 As of March 2022, asbestos remediation work had not been undertaken in 5,454 (~46%) out of 11,946 of South Korean elementary, middle and high schools. Fifty-three per cent of high schools, ~45% of primary schools and 42% of middle schools remain contaminated. The worst affected provinces in the country are South Jeolla where 59% of schools contain asbestos, South Gyeongsang (58.8%), and North Chungcheung (56%). Unfortunately, the number of premises in the capital city of Seoul is also high with 58.6% of schools still affected.
May 25, 2022 Press Conference: Half of all South Korean schools still contain asbestos.
The campaigners called on the government to prioritize the removal of asbestos from schools as a matter of urgency saying that the two-year delay caused by Covid-19 in addressing this life and death issue was unacceptable. The data released and information provided at the press conference were widely reported by the media.
During the 20th century, the use of asbestos material in schools had been mandatory for fireproofing according to government regulations; this continued until 2005. As the use of asbestos was banned in Korea in 2009, new schools are asbestos-free.2 Unfortunately, due to the legacy of widespread asbestos use, deteriorating asbestos-containing products in older schools constitute an ongoing risk to children and staff.
At the press conference Choi Ye-yong, Director of the Asian Citizens' Center for Environmental Health, highlighted the potential hazard posed to students by asbestos removal work:
Safe removal from schools is more important than achieving asbestos removal targets. A monitoring system composed of parents, environmental groups, and experts is needed to ensure compliance with safety standards during demolition and renewal projects.3
Agreeing with his colleague, campaigner and school parent Kim Sook-young said:
The pandemic made it difficult for parents to monitor asbestos removal work to ensure compliance with government guidelines and safety manuals; as a result, there were many cases of unsafe work by unmonitored operatives. We need to reinstate monitoring procedures for remediation projects at all schools.
During her intervention at the press conference, Yeseong Yoon of the National School Parents Network to Ban Asbestos in Schools raised concern about whether asbestos removal work carried out during the winter 2021 school vacation had been compliant with regulations: We need, she said to strengthen joint inspections between ministries of the decontamination work.4
The Ministry of Education has set a deadline of 2027 for the total eradication of the asbestos hazard from the national educational infrastructure.5 To that end, 2.872 trillion won (US$2.28 billion) is being invested to decontaminate and remediate schools. To minimize toxic exposures to school users, education departments throughout the country are scheduling asbestos removal work during summer and winter school vacations.
May 31, 2022
1 환경단체 "전국 초중고교 절반은 여전히 '석면 학교'" [Environmental group About half of elementary, middle and high schools nationwide are still asbestos schools].
2 “전국 초중고 10곳 중 4곳 이상 석면에 노출” [More than 4 out of 10 elementary, middle and high schools nationwide contain asbestos].
4 환경단체 “전국 초중고교 절반은 여전히 ‘석면 학교’” [Environmental group About half of elementary, middle and high schools nationwide are still asbestos schools]. May 25, 2022.
5 It is believed that asbestos remediation is still required in 7,000 schools in Korea as of May 2022.