The city of Philadelphia has been the center of turmoil after numerous schools were closed down due to the discovery of asbestos within their buildings. Since late 2019, schools have either closed or partially closed to give the Philadelphia School District time to decide how to handle the overwhelmingly expensive project of removing asbestos from its schools. This is coupled with the strain on all schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The superintendent says that 80% of all the schools in Philadelphia were built before 1978, before asbestos was banned in the U.S., so it’s highly likely that those schools contain some asbestos.
All the schools below were found to have some traces of asbestos:
- Benjamin Franklin High School
- Science Leadership Academy
- T.M. Peirce Elementary
- Pratt Early Childhood Center
- Franklin Learning Center
- Alexander K. McClure Elementary
- Laura H. Carnell Elementary
- Francis Hopkinson Elementary
- Clara Barton Elementary
- James J. Sullivan Elementary
- Charles W. Henry School
The Philadelphia asbestos crisis first made headlines in mid-2018 when The Philadelphia Inquirer published an investigation into the city’s schools. A year-and-a-half later, a 51-year school teacher came forward to claim asbestos in the schools caused her mesothelioma. Two years later, the teacher was awarded an $850,000 settlement from the Philadelphia School Board.
Mesothelioma is a rare type of cancer caused by asbestos exposure that has notoriously low survival rates due to its aggressive nature. Scientists agree that the primary risk factor for mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, and that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. Depending on the severity and spread, the survival rates can be longer or shorter, but they tend to not be favorable for most patients.
Renovation Project at Ben Franklin High Yields Poor Results
In late September 2019, a $37 million renovation project began at Benjamin Franklin High School after asbestos was found in the school. After the initial project proposal, ten other schools throughout 2019 were found to have asbestos in varying amounts, leading to the closing of the schools until it could be contained.
An investigation by the Philadelphia Inspector General showed that the school district ignored warning signs, rushed crucial work, and wasted money, endangering students and staff throughout the process. The report explained that children and staff remained in the buildings as construction occurred and were exposed to asbestos dust.
Numerous students and staff at Ben Franklin High School have reportedly become severely sick, with symptoms that include asthma flare-ups, burning eyes and throats, and one case of a persistent cough that caused hours of vomiting. Aside from illnesses, the construction also displaced over 1,000 students and teachers at the school for certain parts of the construction.
In early 2020, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District for failing to provide sufficient asbestos testing and for not taking appropriate action to protect the union’s teachers. The union blames the superintendent for mishandling the situation. Critics of the school district also note that the presence of asbestos is not a new problem, and parents have been complaining about this and other health-related issues for years.
Additional Funding Required
Recently, Pennsylvania’s governor has proposed making $1 billion available to schools across the state to mitigate the presence of asbestos on school property and ensure that students and teachers are told if their school contains any traces of toxic materials. However, some critics don’t feel this is enough money to cover all the schools’ costs since it cost Ben Franklin High School over $37 million alone to remove asbestos safely.
Throughout early 2020, more schools ended up closing after concerns regarding asbestos, and the school district has struggled to keep up with the testing and construction required to update building infrastructure so they can be deemed safe. While most buildings have reopened, there are still some buildings that are being renovated. The district will have to route children to different schools as it determines how long the project will take.
To fix the problem and end the asbestos crisis in Philadelphia, the superintendent says the city and school district needs $125 million in new funding. The school district has also hired an environmental law firm to represent them, making the price tag of the Philadelphia asbestos crisis even higher.