Investigative Reporting Finds Asbestos and Lead in Philadelphia Schools

by Sokolove Law

In the past decade, it has become increasingly apparent that many of our nation’s school buildings contain a significant amount of asbestos contamination. Needless to say, this puts millions of American students and teachers at risk on a daily basis. An independent investigation of Philadelphia’s school system (the nation’s 8th-largest school district) conducted by the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News suggests that exposure is more common – and more dramatic – than originally thought.

To complete their study, the investigative journalists made use of a combination of sources, including the district’s public records, interviews with school employees, laboratory testing, and independent environmental detective work.

A dismal 9,000 environmental problems were identified in the district since September 2015. More than half of the public elementary schools in the city had 50 or more reports of frayed asbestos or other hazards such as flaking lead paint and mold. It nearly goes without saying: These hazards are not ignorable; they are very serious and very harmful, and their presence in public schools puts everybody who enters them at risk.

The Investigation’s Findings

The independent investigation revealed high levels of asbestos fibers in commonly-used spaces, such as hallways, auditoriums, classrooms, and gymnasiums. Lead dust was found on windowsills, floors, and shelves. In addition, incidences of mold, mouse droppings, and cockroaches were also found — all of which can trigger asthma and other serious health problems.

In order to gather their data, the newspaper investigators contacted employees at some of the city’s most run-down schools, asking them to wipe sample areas and collect water from the school’s drinking fountains. The samples were then sent to an independent, nationally-accredited lab for testing. In response to the data’s findings of asbestos, lead, and other toxins, school officials argued that air-monitoring tests (the only kind required by law) should be considered more accurate.

It is dangerous to assume that asbestos and other hazardous materials are “safely tucked away” in ceilings or walls. Children interact with the physical space of a school in a much different way than adults; they sit on the floor as part of classroom activity or to play, they pin drawings and projects to school walls, and they drink and refill water bottles from school drinking fountains. What the investigation concludes, is what people have known for decades: any asbestos present in a building has the potential to cause significant harm and lead to diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis, and the especially lethal mesothelioma.

History of Asbestos Use Haunts Our World Today

The reason why cancer-causing asbestos is so common in our nation’s schools has a lot to do with regulations and practices that existed at the time of construction. If your local school (or home) was built before 1980, there is a high probability that it contains asbestos. In the case of Philadelphia’s widespread problem, school officials have stated that necessary repairs will cost $3 Billion and take 10 years to complete.

In the years to come, it is vital these issues are dealt with, or, at the very least, continually monitored by reputable specialists and abatement contractors. Because remedying these health hazards is an expensive logistical problem, transparency is key. Although federal regulations are already in place, there are still thousands of schools that have been proven unsafe for our children. This is unacceptable.

Perhaps the first step in demanding action is to increase public awareness. A common misconception is that mesothelioma occurs only from asbestos exposure at job sites. What this investigation reminds us is that, frightening as it is, asbestos exposure is something that can happen in even the “safest” of places. At the very least, federal regulations must be upheld if communities hope to combat the scourge of asbestos effectively. More optimistically, new federal regulation will be instituted to rid our older schools and buildings of asbestos, paving the way toward a total ban.

Moving forward, the public must remain vigilant, seek justice where justice is due, and hold corporations that have used (or continue to use) asbestos in their products accountable for the death and sickness they have caused the American public.

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