This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
After a longtime educator was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lung disease almost always caused by exposure to loose asbestos fibers, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and several local elected officials are calling for an immediate $100 million investment from the state to test and fix health hazards in the city’s schools.
Although the officials and experts acknowledged that the cause of the teacher’s condition could not be definitively pinpointed, PFT president Jerry Jordan, speaking at a Wednesday news conference, called environmental problems in the schools “systemic” and said that “students and educators are literally risking death whenever they go to school.”
He said that during the affected teacher’s 30-year career, she spent 17 years teaching at Meredith Elementary School in South Philadelphia, and before that worked at nearby Nebinger Elementary.
Jordan said that 160 to 175 of the District’s school buildings contain asbestos, which was commonly used in insulation before 1978. District officials confirmed that estimate.
“That’s probably true,” said Brian Joseph, the District’s director of environmental services, in a School District press conference held later on Wednesday. “But as long as it is intact, it is not presenting a health hazard.”
Joseph said that each school has an inspection every six months, as required by federal law. He said the District hires outside vendors certified by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and the priority is to respond to reports of damage, in which the asbestos fibers may be released into the air.
Containing damage as it is reported is necessary before the District could “start looking at the bigger picture” of “full abatement” – meaning removal – of asbestos in all buildings, Joseph said, a daunting undertaking. The average age of Philadelphia’s school buildings is 80 years, and two years ago it estimated in a Facilities Condition Assessment that the schools collectively required an estimated $4.5 billion in upgrades, maintenance, and repairs.
“We are saddened by reports of the teacher with this illness,” said District Chief Operating Officer Danielle Floyd, adding: “We stand behind that our buildings are safe for our students and staff to come to every day.”
Joseph said that in light of the diagnosis, they would “accelerate” already planned remediation work at Meredith “in coordination with our PFT partners.” This will include a comprehensive evaluation for damaged paint and plaster, a check of the ventilation system in all parts of the building, and a thorough “indoor environmental evaluation.”
Jerry Roseman, the longtime environmental scientist for the PFT’s Health and Welfare Fund, said that “Meredith is a very old school. … Children are going to come in contact with asbestos. The biggest concern is pipe insulation – in hallways, in gymnasiums.”
He spoke as part of the first news conference organized by a group calling itself the Fund the Facilities Coalition, which includes Democratic State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler and State Sen. Larry Farnese (whose grandfather was once president of the school board), Council members Derek Green and Helen Gym, AFL-CIO president Larry Eiding, and Roseman.
To meet its capital needs, the District issues bonds – but if it takes on too much debt, it has fewer operating dollars to invest in instruction, presenting it with a dilemma. While Gov. Wolf has targeted extra money to Philadelphia for building needs, the state legislature is not treating this as a crisis for which it shares responsibility.
On Thursday, the Board of Education’s Facilities and Finance Committee will vote on accepting $9.2 million in state funds for lead paint stabilization in District schools located in the North Philadelphia Health Enterprise Zone. The money has to be spent in those schools.
“Anyone who is not helpful fighting for this money is complicit,” said Fiedler, who represents part of South Philadelphia. “We need this money right now.” Fiedler grew emotional as she talked about her child getting ready for school, thinking about the threats to students and their teachers: “I think it’s important to take this personally.”
Farnese said, “Let’s call it what it is, a disgrace.”
Gym, who launched her political career as an education activist, said: “This has been going on for far too long.”
Gym said that after the 2015-16 school year, Meredith was placed by the District on a priority list for asbestos removal. The teacher’s illness highlights the “urgent need for action” and “glaring injustice,” she said.
She said that the state needs to take action, including Wolf. “It’s incumbent on our state legislators, our delegation, and especially our governor … no more back seats.”
Eiding, who served for more than 25 years as business manager and financial secretary of the Insulators & Asbestos Workers Local 14, also grew emotional as he talked.
“I’ve buried more brothers because of mesothelioma,” he said. “I won’t go into how debilitating the disease is. … $100 million is nothing. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve stood under pipes leaking asbestos. … I know the difference between asbestos and dust. Fix the schools for these kids.”
District COO Floyd said that this year the District has set aside $422 million for facility improvements and maintenance, focusing $20.7 million on asbestos abatement and lead paint removal. In addition to hiring the outside inspectors and contractors, the District has its own in-house asbestos team, she said. In the last three years, there have been more than 1,600 instances of asbestos remediation.
According to the American Cancer Society website, about eight in 10 people who get mesothelioma, which can incubate for years or even decades before people show symptoms, have been exposed to asbestos. It also said that most people exposed to asbestos, “even in large amounts,” never contract the disease.