Eradicating Asbestos from Koreas Schools
The Korean Government has set a deadline of 2027 for the removal of asbestos from the countrys educational infrastructure. Pursuant to this aim, asbestos eradication programs are ongoing throughout the country; in most cases, removal work is conducted during the school holidays to avoid disrupting the education process.
The scale of the challenges posed by this program are huge given the restrictions imposed. In 2023, ~5.3 million children attend 11,946 elementary, middle and high schools in South Korea; nearly half of all the schools contain asbestos, predominantly, but not exclusively, chrysotile (white asbestos) in schoolroom ceilings and hallways. Some schools in rural areas have asbestos roofing on outdoor toilets and outbuildings.
The Asbestos Eradication Program is conducted as per stipulations set out in the Health Act and the Ministry of Educations School Health Act. The responsibility of ensuring that decontamination projects are carried out in compliance with national laws and guidelines is apportioned amongst duty holders as follows:
Work began on the Asbestos Eradication at Schools Project in 2017 with a government commitment to allocate $257,000,000 over ten years. During the most recent school break (December 2022 February 2023), asbestos remediation was carried out at 1,114 schools nationwide; whilst work was completed at 863 schools, by the end of the vacation, 251 of the schools still contained some asbestos.
Bulk sampling of ceiling material in a schoolroom at a high school in Incheon, Korea February 8, 2023. The tests carried out by electron microscope showed that the tiles were in a fragile state and contained 4% chrysotile asbestos. Photograph by Yeyong Choi.
The Ban Asbestos Network of Korea (BANKO) a grassroots group representing asbestos victims, technical experts and concerned citizens has been monitoring the roll-out of the schools asbestos removal program. When unsafe practices have been discovered, media outlets are notified about the nature of the infringements and the names of the schools affected.
This photograph was taken at a February 13, 2023 press conference about illegal and unsafe asbestos removal activities at schools during the December 2022-February 2023 vacation. The event was held at the Incheon Friends of the Earth office. The words on the orange banner at the top of the picture say Asbestos schools are dangerous; the words on the poster with the red background say concerns about unsafe asbestos removal; the words on the black background say: complete management for school asbestos. Photo courtesy of BANKO.
Commenting on the work of BANKO activist Yeyong Choi said:
BANKO personnel have worked closely with regional education departments to organize watchdog teams, composed of environmental campaigners, parents and technical experts, to monitor and, when necessary, intervene in key processes such as project planning, construction of safety facilities and disposal of asbestos debris. At the completion of the removal work, we collect dust samples from schoolrooms and analyze them using an electronic microscope. If asbestos is detected, we raise the alarm. Parents watchdog activities are essential.
The Governments work to make our schools safe is very welcomed and is proof of the effectiveness of the nationwide campaign led by asbestos victims to address the countrys deadly asbestos legacy. We are now working with civil society partners on plans for a program to eradicate all asbestos roofing, and eventually all asbestos, from Korea. Our ultimate goal is an Asbestos-free Korea!
April 3, 2023