The Philadelphia School District Implements New Safety Measures Amid Asbestos Fallout

The average age of a city school district building is 70 years old, but some are 120 years old. Like with most old buildings built before the 1970s, they were constructed with asbestos-containing materials. Over the past few months a slew of schools have experienced closures due to asbestos concerns, and staff have reported illnesses that they suspect could have been caused by their long tenure working in these schools and being exposed to the toxic material. As WHYY reports, this isn’t the first time that the School District has faced this issue, the first occurrence happened back in 1984.  


Just this past week, CBS3 reported that two additional schools were closed after asbestos had been found in the pipe insulation.


In the U.S. alone, there are at least 700,000 buildings of all types — hospitals, high rise office buildings, homes, apartment buildings, prisons, courthouses and schools — that have asbestos-containing materials. “Harmful exposure only occurs when materials containing asbestos are disturbed or damaged in a way that releases fibers into the air and those fibers are inhaled or swallowed,” explained district spokesperson Imahni Moise.


Moise said that the district’s goal is to identify and address damaged asbestos-containing materials as quickly as possible. They are working to better inform and educate the city’s school communities about environmental safety by, “developing a more consistent and proactive process to communicate with any school where construction and/or environmental initiatives are underway; working closely with internationally recognized asbestos expert Dr. Arthur Frank to create content that provides more information about asbestos; and enhancing the information on our website so that families have access to all construction and environmental efforts, including all school-based environmental test results, and user-friendly guides on how to read those reports/results,” explained Moise. 

“The mere presence of asbestos in a building does not make it unsafe. As long as the asbestos-containing material is not damaged and is properly encapsulated it does not present a danger for students and staff,” said Moise. “The likelihood of getting diseases due to low levels of asbestos exposure is very low; while not impossible, it is very unlikely.” 


Rhonda Harrison is the parent of a fourth grader at Meredith. She and her daughter were not affected by the asbestos issue. She is only aware of one teacher whose health has been affected by the asbestos.  


“I believe that it could have been handled differently if the school district had stayed on top of all of the issues and rectified each one immediately instead of patch work or nothing at all,” she said. “I’m very surprised to find that this is still an issue in 2019. I was blindsided by the fact that it’s not just this school but almost 200 schools affected.”


When damaged asbestos-containing materials were found at Meredith Elementary earlier this school year, Moise said the area was swiftly and safely abated. Environmental testing was also completed to ensure that the space was safe for re-occupancy. Currently there are no reports of damaged asbestos containing materials at Meredith.


Leah Jordan, a parent of an SLA senior, said there was a late start to the school year, as well as the days of virtual school while the location was being considered and then readied. “For seniors, that meant more time for college applications. However, the uncertainty of where and when school would start was stressful,” she said. “It meant school and SDP meetings. The SDP had not kept the Science Leadership Academy Ben Franklin (SLABF) community informed and, as a result, there was some inherent mistrust.” SLABF were both schools that were in the building. It was BF’s building and then SLA was brought in this year. 


In many ways, the situation made Jordan even prouder of being part of the SLA community. She said the students spoke thoughtfully, passionately and eloquently about the situation and, if possible, it was even more apparent how much the teachers cared.


Jordan said the displacement has not affected her son’s school performance “though there is no access to certain equipment that would be helpful. Science labs are an issue as well as engineering equipment. We are fortunate that the teachers at SLA were involved virtually and met with the students at 440 (N. Broad Street, the School District’s building) and now work through the limitations.”  


Jordan thinks it will be clear to move back to the SLA building in February. She said there could have been better and more communication from the school district, but they are more informed now. “Mostly, though, there should have been a viable Plan B from the start. A delay in a construction project is far from unforeseeable,” she concluded. 


The district says they are committed to proactively engaging school communities in the process of identifying and vetting relocation sites whenever an environmental issue requires school relocation. And they continue to make progress toward the completion of the Ben Franklin-Science Leadership Academy campus, and to engage both school communities in conversation about re-entry timing. At this time, Moise said a re-occupancy date for the shared campus has not yet been finalized.


To better identify concerns, increase their responsiveness and address known asbestos conditions in schools, the district has proposed that they will: 

    • Strengthen their bi-annual AHERA inspections of every school; inspectors will now immediately report any findings of possible imminent hazards to the Office of Environmental Management Services staff for follow-up within 24 hours and include hard-to-reach areas like attic spaces in their inspections. 
    • Have facility area coordinators (FACs) partner with their principals to conduct an inspection of every school to identify any potential environmental safety concerns. 
    • Provide refresher training on asbestos risk identification and reporting to their facility area coordinators, building engineers and principals. 


“The health and safety of our teachers and staff are our most important priorities. We feel deeply for the teacher recently diagnosed with mesothelioma and her family as they navigate this difficult time,” said Moise. “The District’s focus is on implementing industry best practices to monitor environmental conditions in our schools, to identify damaged asbestos and to address this as quickly as possible; that said, we continue to make strides to improve environmental safety in our schools.”


“Implementing our new Environmental Safety Improvement Plan and confronting our challenges with urgency and quality will be a core focus of our District until all SDP students and staff members have the clean, safe and welcoming learning environments they need and deserve,” Moise concluded.