Families and students in Philadelphia are expressing outrage in response to news that, for the third time this year, a local school was discovered to have an airborne asbestos threat.
In October, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported school officials had waited more than a month to respond to warnings of possible asbestos contamination inside a gym at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia. Now parents are saying they will not be sending their kids back to school until the students are relocated to another building.
Widely known to be a lethal carcinogen, and the only known cause of mesothelioma, asbestos is incredibly dangerous. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) has maintained for years that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.
Given the dangerous reality of asbestos, it’s no wonder that parental outrage boiled over at a recent meeting with district officials. Parents furiously rejected a plan to keep students in the building during asbestos abatement procedures. So far, to limit access to the contaminated area, school officials have only relocated the lunch area and ordered portable bathrooms to be installed in the schoolyard.
Principal Anthony Gordon, meanwhile, assured reporters that there has been no exposure. But the details of the outbreak suggest that such a claim cannot be guaranteed, nor has it calmed parents who are concerned about a school district waiting weeks to respond to warnings about an asbestos outbreak.
Asbestos-Containing Products: ‘Cracked and Exposed’
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, teachers at Peirce Elementary first expressed concerns about cracked and exposed asbestos-containing products at a meeting in mid-September. The school gym teacher, worried about the location of asbestos insulation in an area as active as a gym, reported he’d occasionally seen ceiling debris scattered across the floor.
At the teachers’ request, Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, toured the facility and urged officials to close the space off from students and staff. Roseman followed up with school district officials 3 times over the next month, receiving assurances that measures would be taken to remedy the situation.
No such measures were taken.
Inspectors later discovered flaking lead paint and unsealed lead abatement equipment mere feet away from where students were learning. Sharif Street, a state senator who toured the facility, told the Inquirer that the situation disturbed him:
“As best as I could tell, there was exposed asbestos that the children had access to, and there also appeared to be a significant amount of flaking lead paint. It seemed to be pretty rampant.”
Street, too, contacted local officials and school board leaders to warn them about the possible contamination. He received assurance that something would be done, but it was not until the Philadelphia Inquirer, catching wind of the story, began asking questions that the district hired a building inspector to address the concerns.
During the inspection, officials discovered damaged friable asbestos around pipe insulation in the gym. When “friable” — meaning, the asbestos is in a disturbed or crumbling state — asbestos can be easily inhaled and cause deadly diseases like mesothelioma.
An Unsettling Trend in U.S. Schools
The unfolding of events at Peirce Elementary was revealed in stark contrast to a similar issue that arose at a different school in the area.
In September, concerns about asbestos contamination emerged at Meredith Elementary in South Philadelphia after a longtime teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Jerry Roseman, the scientist who discovered the asbestos at Peirce Elementary, was hired and discovered damaged asbestos in Meredith’s school gym, too.
Following that discovery, officials immediately closed off the Meredith gym to students and staff. Remediation procedures began just 2 days later.
When the Inquirer first reached out to school district officials, reporters were told that the lack of action at Peirce was due to insufficient staff and resources. Why the response at Meredith Elementary was so much faster is not clear.
It is certainly true that school districts in Philadelphia and other municipalities suffer from aging buildings, limited budgets, and creeping asbestos threats. The allocation of funding maps clearly onto class and racial divides in the area, revealing a disturbing contrast in how urgently asbestos, lead contamination, and other threats are treated.
It was not lost on parents, when meeting with district officials, that the student population at Meredith Elementary is generally whiter and wealthier than that of Peirce Elementary.
That contrast itself was the subject of its own investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer last month, which found similar discrepancies between 2 magnet schools in central Philadelphia: Benjamin Franklin High School and the Science Leadership Academy.
District officials’ mishandling of asbestos contamination at those schools eventually resulted in the relocation of 1,000 students. Adding insult to injury, the relocation followed initial attempts to relocate students to buildings that, during the 2015-2016 school year, had been found by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to contain asbestos.
Evidence of rampant asbestos contamination in the city of Philadelphia is not so much a matter of municipal negligence as simply being overwhelmed with the number of sites containing the toxic substance.
According to a 2018 report by the Inquirer, nearly all Philadelphia district schools built before 1980 contain asbestos. That investigation (“Toxic City, Sick Schools”) revealed many more alarming details, not just about asbestos contamination in Philadelphia schools, but also lead paint, mold, and other environmental threats.