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Credit: Alice Heyeh

Six Philadelphia public schools and an early learning center have closed since September due to hazardous asbestos damage, leading Penn students who attended these schools to worry about their health. 

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sued the city's school district on Jan. 21 for insufficient asbestos testing and negligence upon the discovery of health hazards. On Jan. 30, the district committed to spending at least $14 million to address environmental hazards in the next few years, but many Philadelphia residents and former students believe that much more needs to be done. 

The schools closed due to asbestos were McClure Elementary, Carnell Elementary, Science Leadership Academy, Ben Franklin High, T.M Pierce Elementary, Hopkinson Elementary, the Franklin Learning Center, and the Pratt Early Childhood Center, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. 

Jerry Roseman, environmental scientist for the PFT, said that many old buildings contain asbestos, a mineral commonly used for insulation, but do not pose health concerns. He added, however, once asbestos becomes damaged, microparticles can escape into the air and cause severe health problems like mesothelioma, a severe form of lung cancer. According to Roseman, the primary risk factor for mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. 

“It’s known, particularly, that asbestos is a very hazardous material and that there’s no safe exposure level to this material,” Roseman said. “And it’s spectacularly dangerous that way.”

This past fall, Philadelphia public school teacher Lea DiRusso was diagnosed with mesothelioma. DiRusso taught at Meredith Elementary, and her classroom contained pipes with damaged asbestos insulation. Medical professionals determined that her time in school was a significant contributor to her illness, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Robin Roberts, who works as a public school physical therapist for 12 public schools in the district and is a member of the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative, said although no one is sure exactly how many schools have asbestos hazards, she estimates 90% of public school buildings have dangerous asbestos damage. Roberts, who has two children who attend schools in the district, also believes that nearly all the district schools have a significant health hazard such as lead or mold. 

Though Roberts acknowledges that the root of the issue is the lack of funding and resources available to the district, she maintains that those in power were aware of the problems asbestos posed and should have done more to combat them. 

“These are not new things,” Roberts said. “People have been reporting [facility hazards]. Parents have been reporting it.”

Roberts said her own children faced retribution from the principal of their elementary school when Roberts spoke out about the school’s poor conditions.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers sued the school district for insufficient asbestos testing and negligence upon the discovery of health hazards. (Photo by Asbestorama | CC BY 2.0)

College senior Natan Yakov said he also believes asbestos damage has been widespread in the school district for years. He said he remembers seeing rampant health concerns during his time as a student in Philadelphia public schools and while volunteering at Hamilton Elementary School for Penn's Academic Based Community Service course, "The Biology of Food." 

“This is not a surprise at all,” Yakov said, referring to the recent discoveries of damaged asbestos in schools. “And honestly, asbestos is a serious matter, but I wouldn’t be surprised – if the school district were serious about investigating other types of hazards – that they could go into any school and find hazards of a similar nature.”

In an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, a spokesperson for Civic House said that Penn students in their programs do not volunteer at any of the schools that have been shut down.

According to the Inquirer, some Philadelphia residents believe that the district has responded differently to asbestos findings based on the demographic of the affected school. The Inquirer's investigation suggests the district was aware of asbestos issues in Ben Franklin High School for years but did not take action until students from Science Leadership Academy, a more affluent student body, moved in. 

Deputy Chief of Communication for the Philadelphia school district Monica Lewis said, however, that the district cares about the wellbeing of all students equally. 

“All neighborhoods are important to the school district,” Lewis said. “There is not one school, one neighborhood, one group that gets preferential treatment over another one.”

It would cost $3 billion to repair all urgent, structural issues in the school district, exceeding the district's allotted budget. Senior Fellow at Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives Marilyn Howarth said, however, the district can, in the meantime, protect students by wet-mopping school floors every day to eliminate potentially hazardous dust. 

Howarth added, however, that more substantive change is necessary to make schools safer in the long term.

“I think that the first and most important thing is that the school district set aside a certain percentage of their budget for building maintenance and infrastructure maintenance every year,” Howarth.

Despite her concerns, Roberts also acknowledged the difficulty of addressing asbestos and other health hazards when the district lacks the funds for other basic issues such as school supplies and teacher salaries.

“Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to say ‘OK, I’m going to replace the roof of this building when the walls are on fire’,” Roberts said. 

David Mansur, the executive director of PennEnvironment and a member of the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative, also discussed the need for the school district to rebuild trust with the community after handling health concerns.

“I think the only way they can really do it is to truly give parents, students, and teachers and equal seat at the table,” said Mansur. 

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