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Asbestos in Schools
Asbestos can be anywhere – and we mean anywhere. This dangerous, cancer-causing mineral could be in your house, office building, local grocery store, local gas station, post office, park playground, bus depot or school.
Yes, even your school.
In fact, asbestos in schools is a crisis in the United States – and elsewhere. There have been multiple reports of public school districts finding decaying asbestos inside the walls or ceilings of old school buildings. These buildings are long past due for renovations, which can include asbestos abatement, the professional term for removing or fixing asbestos that has worn down and become dangerous due to fibers fracturing.
Here is an overview of the history of asbestos in schools, how this became a dangerous issue for teachers, students, and others, who is responsible for the crisis, and what can be done to address it and keep students, teachers and staff safe from a dangerous carcinogen.
History of Asbestos in Schools
Did you know that 90% of American public schools were built before 1985? The majority of American schools were built during the peak of asbestos-use and before the health effects of the hazardous material were ever considered.
Just as asbestos was used in many corners of the global market, it was frequently used in the construction of school buildings, causing risk for all students, teachers, administrators and parents that entered the school.
Asbestos has often been detected in materials known to exist in schools, such as:
- Cement pipes
- Electrical wires
- Pipe coverings
- Ceiling tiles
- Sealants and coatings (for paint)
- Roofing shingles
- Textiles and curtains
- Vinyl flooring
Public officials knew they could no longer ignore the risks and had to establish regulations on the toxic substance to protect the public’s health and safety.
Details of the EPA’s Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools Rule
On October 30, 1987, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools Rule (40 CFR Part 763), which “requires local education agencies to identify friable and non-friable asbestos-containing material (ACM) in private and public elementary and secondary schools by visually inspecting school buildings for such materials, sampling such materials and having samples analyzed by appropriate techniques referred to in this rule.”
Due to this regulation, schools are required to collaborate with certified asbestos professionals to conduct inspections, collect and analyze samples, develop management plans, or execute proper response actions.
The requirements for asbestos handlers vary by state, but they are typically required to complete an in-depth training course to receive certification. You can often find the requirements on your state’s environmental agency’s website or the department of public safety.
After the EPA’s announcement of the Asbestos-Containing Materials in Schools Rule, schools across the United States were notified of their timeline to develop and implement asbestos management plans.
U.S. schools were required to submit their asbestos management plans to the governor of their state by October 12, 1988, almost one year after the EPA’s announcement. Once the school’s asbestos management plan was submitted to the governor, they had almost one more year to begin implementing strategies by July 9, 1989.
Along with asbestos management planning and implementation, schools were also mandated to follow the EPA’s recordkeeping requirements to ensure schools are in compliance with asbestos safety protocols. If needed, schools were encouraged to consult with EPA Regional Asbestos Coordinators or a state agency designated by the state’s governor for assistance.
Although the EPA passed strict asbestos regulations decades ago, the risk of asbestos exposure still exists due to legacy asbestos — asbestos remaining in old buildings, structures or materials.
Asbestos Crisis in Philadelphia Schools
The School District of Philadelphia is the 8th largest school district in the United States, with 329 schools and nearly 200,000 students.
As one of the most populated school districts in the country, it’s understandable to assume the district has long been in compliance with national health and safety regulations for the protection of students, teachers and personnel. This assumption is astoundingly wrong.
In 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of articles exposing the shocking conditions of Philadelphia’s public schools.
Reporters from the publication and the Daily Mail investigated the physical state of district schools and examined five years of internal maintenance issues and school building records. They interviewed 120 Philadelphia School District personnel, including teachers, nurses, parents, students and experts.
Exposing the Toxic State of Philadelphia’s Public Schools
Upon analyzing maintenance and building records, reporters uncovered over 9,000 reports of environmental issues since September 2015 – less than three years at the time the article was published. The reports described mold, deteriorating asbestos, flaking and peeling paint likely containing lead.
To determine the risks students were actively facing, employees at 19 of Philadelphia’s schools volunteered to collect samples of the school’s unsafe conditions. School staff used surface wipes to sample areas for lead dust, mold spores and asbestos fibers. They also collected water samples from drinking fountains across school campuses.
The results were far worse than anyone could have imagined – dangerously high levels of asbestos were found all over the schools. Classrooms, gyms, auditoriums and hallways were all deemed unsafe due to extreme levels of deteriorating asbestos.
Philadelphia School District officials condemned the testing methods, stating they were not collected properly and defended the conditions of the schools by saying there are too many schools and not an adequate budget.
Parents should not have to worry if their child’s health and safety is in danger. The release of the Inquirer’s exposé initiated further investigation by city and government officials and ignited outrage in teachers, faculty members, parents and students.
Due to the shocking state of Philadelphia’s public schools, many parents withheld their children from school to protect them from the hazardous conditions, and several schools were closed for sampling and testing during the 2019-2020 school year.
Philadelphia’s Asbestos School Closures
Attributed to a massive construction project to merge the two schools, Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy were the first schools to shut down.
During construction in September 2019, workers discovered damaged asbestos ductwork in a boiler room shared by the two schools, which ultimately led to the closure of both schools.
An investigation revealed the school had not been following asbestos abatement guidelines and was not properly removing the hazard since August of 2018. Nearly 1,000 students were transferred to other schools.
Following the closure of Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy, several other schools were also forced to shut down:
- October 4, 2019: T.M. Peirce Elementary partially closed due to asbestos in the gym, then it fully closed in December.
- November 12, 2019: Pratt Early Childhood Center was closed due to damaged asbestos materials in the boiler room and heating units.
- December 17, 2019: Franklin Learning Center closed due to damaged asbestos in an air shaft that connected the attic to the fan room.
- December 19, 2019: Alexander K. McClure Elementary and Laura H. Carnell Elementary were closed due to the presence of asbestos. McClure had over a dozen confirmed asbestos locations. Both schools reopened almost one month later, but McClure was closed again after two days because of dangerous levels of airborne asbestos. Parents, students and teachers protested in front of the school demanding better conditions.
- February 3, 2020: Francis Hopkinson Elementary was closed indefinitely due to 55 locations in the school being contaminated with asbestos.
- February 13, 2020: Clara Barton Elementary and James J. Sullivan Elementary were closed due to confirmed asbestos in several locations throughout both schools.
- February 20, 2020: Charles W. Henry closed off a classroom due to damaged asbestos pipe insulation.
Philadelphia Teacher Diagnosed With Mesothelioma
Amidst all the asbestos discoveries and school closures across the city of Philadelphia, the school district was flooded with backlash from all corners. One particular announcement affected the public and school faculty members deeply.
A long-time Philadelphia teacher, Mrs. DiRusso, had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a very rare abdominal cancer. Mesothelioma is often challenging to treat due to the long latency period of this type of cancer. The only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos, and it can lay dormant in the victim’s body for up to 50 years.
Most people assume that mesothelioma diagnoses are more commonly seen among professions that work directly with asbestos, or workers that have a history of occupational asbestos exposure. However, OSHA states there is no “safe” level of asbestos exposure, but extensive exposure can increase your chances of developing an asbestos disease.
Mrs. DiRusso spent nearly 30 years teaching for the Philadelphia School District at Meredith Elementary, a 90-year-old school. Her school was known to have leaking pipes, damaged asbestos insulation and peeling (lead) paint.
She worked hard to turn her outdated classroom into a safe and welcoming environment for her students by having homey curtains around the room, peel-and-stick stained-glass sheets on windows and classical music playing in the background.
Because her school was almost a century old, she was used to showing up to school on Monday mornings to see dust covering her classroom. Naturally, Mrs. DiRusso would sweep and dust, ensuring her classroom was clean and presentable for her students.
Unbeknownst to her, she had been exposed to toxic asbestos fibers every day she went to school. Mrs. DiRusso was diagnosed with malignant peritoneal mesothelioma in August of 2019, shortly before Philadelphia schools began to shut down due to hazardous asbestos conditions.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Suing School District
In January 2020, in the midst of extreme chaos for the school district, the teachers’ union filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District. They alleged the district failed to protect nearly 125,000 students and 13,000 employees from deteriorating asbestos in old school district buildings.
“From start to finish, the district’s egregious missteps have shown a disregard for the health of my members and our students,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said during a new conference at union headquarters. “Not only is the process by which the district deals with known hazards extraordinarily flawed, but also, from the start, they are missing even identifying extremely hazardous conditions.”
A large majority of Philadelphia’s district schools contain asbestos, which is fine if the asbestos is concealed and in good condition. However, that was not the case for many schools. Because of the unknown levels of asbestos in schools, parents refused to take their children to school in an effort to protect their health.
One mother withheld her children from November to at least late January. She received a letter from the district threatening to take her to Truancy Court for her children’s “illegal absences.” Her defense was, if it’s illegal for kids to miss school, it should be equally illegal to have students in unsafe buildings.
PFT’s legal action was initiated by the second closure of McClure Elementary. As previously mentioned, McClure Elementary was closed due to asbestos, then reopened after the school was “cleared.” District leaders reassured parents, teachers and students that the school was safe to return to.
Once McClure reopened and students went back, more concerns for the safety of the school came to light, forcing the school to shut down – again – after two days.
The teachers’ union lawsuit was filed in Common Pleas Court and seeks “immediate relief,” requesting a judge to order the school district to follow through with PFT’s requests, which have now become demands.
In the PFT’s lawsuit, the union demands that the district:
- Perform periodic and systematic inspections of all schools “where they know or should have known about environmental hazards”
- Work directly with the PFT to come up with a “written, comprehensive,” court-approved plan that best protects students and staff from asbestos
- Does not conduct asbestos inspections or testing without the involvement of the PFT, which would have immediate access to all asbestos reports and lab results
According to the lawsuit, the school district acknowledged the poor conditions of its schools and the health threats to students, teachers and faculty. The district has specific policies and guidelines for asbestos management but has failed to follow them for years, despite constant complaints.
PFT’s goal with this lawsuit is to ensure proper safety protocols are being followed and all asbestos removal is completed entirely. The union wants to protect themselves and their students from health and safety hazards at school that can be avoided.
Philadelphia School District Pledges $14M to Asbestos Schools Crisis
Almost a week after the announcement of Philadelphia’s Federation of Teachers lawsuit against the Philadelphia School District, the district approved $14 million to address environmental projects over the next few years.
The school board approved a $11.2 million payment to three firms for environmental oversight and design over three years, along with up to $3 million to five firms for emergency asbestos abatement jobs over two years. The board also authorized a $20,000 contract with Drexel University for the consulting services of Arthur Frank, an asbestos exposure expert.
Philadelphia School District will spend $20 million over three years for a management firm to oversee the district’s coming $500 million capital program, which includes school construction and city repairs.
School officials stated that the district has an estimated $4.5 billion in unmet capital needs. Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. responded by saying it would cost $125 million to remove all environmental hazards from every area utilized by students in every city school.
More specifically, the hypothetical $125 million would be distributed as $10 million a year to remove asbestos and $15 million a year to remove all lead paint.
Parents and teachers seemed to accept the district’s pledge and new environmental plan, but they are still upset with the countless missteps that lead them to this point. The district is playing “catch-up” for the next several years due to the age and volume of Philadelphia schools.
Current State of Philadelphia’s Asbestos Schools
- Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy reopened five months and $50 million later in February 2020. The building was heavily remodeled and deemed safe for re-occupancy.
- T.M. Peirce Elementary did not reopen after the asbestos-ridden school was shut down in 2019. However, the school is currently being rebuilt and students will be given a $30 million 77,000-square-foot building as their new school.
- Franklin Learning Center reopened on January 2, weeks after it was closed due to unsafe levels of asbestos. Teachers, students and parents returned to the school and were infuriated with the school’s state, which led to a protest on school property.
- Alexander K. McClure Elementary reopened almost one month after closing. However, the school was closed again after two days because of dangerous levels of airborne asbestos. Parents, students and teachers protested in front of the school demanding safer conditions. The school district and teachers union deemed the building safe for re-occupancy and officially reopened on January 29, 2020.
- Laura H. Carnell Elementary reopened mid-January, almost one month after it was shut down. School officials and the environmental inspection agency responsible for inspecting Carnell deemed the building safe for re-occupancy.
- Francis Hopkinson Elementary was closed indefinitely in February 2020 and finally reopened for the 2020-2021 school year in September 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Clara Barton Elementary and James J. Sullivan Elementary both reopened on February 24, 2020, over a week after the schools initially closed.
In May of 2022, the Philadelphia City Council approved additional regulations and procedures for inspecting asbestos in old school buildings. The council unanimously passed an ordinance requiring more inspection for asbestos and other hazards before schools can open to students.
The school district reportedly opposes the ordinance, claiming it adds unnecessary steps to the inspection and removal process and actually delays efforts to remove asbestos from old buildings.
Other Recent Reports of Asbestos in Schools
Asbestos in schools is a widespread issue. As we know, asbestos was used to build and manufacture almost everything during the 20th century, from buildings to appliances. The issue is not limited just to Philadelphia
Schools across the United States were built during the peak of asbestos, and many have not been renovated since.
Chicago Public Schools Covered in Asbestos
In March 2016, a Chicago news outlet reported nearly 200 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) pose some form of asbestos risk to students and faculty. The environmental group, Environmental Working Group Action Fund, investigated Chicago Public School’s own inspection records.
CPS responded by stating the district had spent almost 54 million dollars on environmental remediation work – including asbestos – throughout the district.
EWG Action Fund’s investigation singled out three schools in dire need of asbestos abatement: Hefferan Elementary School, Northwest Middle School and Lincoln Park High School. The school district claimed it has spent over $250,000 on asbestos abatement projects at each of the three schools mentioned.
Chicago Public Schools states that the district follows all asbestos guidelines and addresses environmental issues in accordance with federal laws and regulations. The EWG Action Fund report found that many schools were in need of attention.
The Environmental Working Group Action Fund published another report exposing Chicago’s Public Schools. The report showed that a small fraction of CPS schools were following asbestos inspection and removal guidelines.
Another report in 2017 showed that CPS had fallen behind on asbestos removal and inspection.
One instance in 2015, CPS failed to remove or repair all cases of asbestos found by inspectors two years earlier in Little Village’s Maria Saucedo Academy, Philip D. Armour Elementary School and Humboldt Park’s Roberto Clemente Community Academy.
Asbestos in Scranton School District Leads to Criminal Charges
Philadelphia isn’t the only Pennsylvania city struggling with asbestos in schools. Neighboring city Scranton also faced a serious battle with asbestos in schools.
Former Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, former Director of Operations Jeffrey Brazil and current maintenance supervisor Joseph Slack were hit with felony charges of reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of children in late September 2020.
Beginning in 2016, there were many reports of dangerous lead levels in drinking water in at least 10 schools. School officials failed to ensure poisoned water fountains and sinks were fixed and misled the public regarding the issue.
Former Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, former Director of Operations Jeffrey Brazil also knew that inspectors found dangerous levels of asbestos in dozens of locations throughout the district. Despite their knowledge of hazardous conditions, they did little to nothing to fix the widespread issue.
According to the Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, one principal emailed Karijan about the unacceptable conditions of his school’s classrooms, but Karijan allegedly told him to only communicate via cell phone.
The principal blocked Karijan’s number, so the two were forced to correspond about the school’s state via email, which would be electronically documented by the school’s email system.
In May 2021, charges against Jeff Brazil and Joseph Slack were dropped due to their cooperation and willingness to provide additional information. This development led to a reduction in Alexis Karijan’s felony charges.
She originally faced 28 felony counts of endangering the welfare of children and 23 counts of recklessly endangering another person. As of 2021, she faced 3 misdemeanor charges of recklessly endangering another person.
Asbestos Discovered at Schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
In the summer of 2021, a derecho swept through Cedar Rapids, Iowa, causing extreme damages to area schools. The Cedar Rapids Community School District hired Illinois-based company, Perfect Property Restoration to repair the extensive damages to one specific school, Kennedy High School.
The school district provided documents to Perfect Property Restoration that showed floor tiles in one classroom contained asbestos. The floor tiles were ultimately removed due to water damage from the derecho.
Industrial fans were used to ventilate the classroom while workers disposed of the asbestos floor tiles. However, zero safety precautions were taken and regulations were not followed during the asbestos removal.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources ordered Kennedy High School to shut down, with only clean up crews allowed in.
Cedar Rapids Community School District agreed to pay an administrative penalty of $4,500 and follow all asbestos regulations during future projects. Perfection Property Restoration also agreed to pay a fine of $6,500 for their asbestos safety violation.
At the end of 2021, Cedar Rapids College Community School District, Iowa sent a letter to parents disclosing the presence of asbestos at Prairie Crest Elementary School. The letter was sent out during the 2021 winter break and announced that the break would be extended for asbestos removal efforts.
The letter stated that a contractor previously replaced carpet in the school, and the glue used in the old carpet contained asbestos. The contractor failed to properly remove the asbestos glue before removing the old carpet in June 2021, meaning the asbestos was no longer concealed according to guidelines.
This error could mean students and staff at the school were being exposed to asbestos five days a week for months. However, the district took the discovery very seriously and followed asbestos safety guidelines when reporting it to students and parents.
People at Risk of Asbestos Exposure in Schools
Anyone who spends regular time inside a school with asbestos is at risk of exposure to the substance and at risk of developing an asbestos cancer. That’s an unfortunate reality for a lot of groups of people, including children.
Students spend 6-9 hours a day inside schools, particularly classrooms, bathrooms and hallways, all places asbestos could be hiding in walls, floor tiles, sheetrock, ceiling tiles, insulation and more. Additionally, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of students inside asbestos-filled school buildings each day.
Students aren’t wearing protective face coverings – aside from some schools during the COVID-19 pandemic – so there’s no way for them to prevent inhaling or ingesting invisible asbestos fibers floating in the air within their schools.
The majority of asbestos exposure happens for adults, usually working-class people exposed on the job. The demographics most likely to develop mesothelioma are men, military veterans, former construction workers, electricians, and automobile repair workers, and people ages 60 and older. Their initial asbestos exposure occurred in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
For asbestos in schools, the age is younger. Children ages 5-18 can be exposed, which could lead to younger cases of mesothelioma.
While there are more students in schools than teachers – by a 20-to-1 or 30-to-1 ratio – the profession of teaching is still considered at risk of asbestos exposure. Teachers spend at least eight hours and sometimes up to 11 or 12 hours a day inside a school building.
There are reports of teachers developing mesothelioma cancer due to their careers. A woman who taught for decades in the Philadelphia Public School District died of mesothelioma a few years ago. She blamed her cancer on asbestos in many of the Philadelphia public schools.
Administration and Other Staff
Administrative staff – principals, vice principals, counselors, and others – were also at risk of asbestos exposure. Other staff in danger includes school resource officers/safety officers, nurses and other medical staff, janitors, cooks and more.
Responsibility and Blame for Asbestos in Schools
Asbestos in schools is a widespread issue that can become difficult to contain. Most schools in the U.S. were built before the regulation of asbestos, which means your local school district most likely contains asbestos.
The health risks and financial burdens that come with asbestos in schools can be detrimental to students, teachers, the school district and even the city.
Exposure to asbestos can put you at risk for certain types of cancer or serious health issues. If asbestos is discovered in a school, there are specific safety procedures the school district is required to follow when reporting and removing the asbestos. This process can be lengthy and expensive, often displacing students and teachers from their schools.
But who is to blame for toxic asbestos schools?
There are many people, organizations and corporations that can be held responsible for asbestos in schools. Those responsible for asbestos in schools can include the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the corporations manufacturing asbestos materials for school construction or school administrators who do not properly report and remove asbestos.
EPA Allowed Asbestos in School Construction
The Environmental Protection Agency is the governing body for hazardous substances in the United States. The EPA is responsible for regulating toxic materials to protect the health and safety of the public.
The government agency failed to share the long-term effects of asbestos exposure and allowed the use of the cancer-causing material for far too long. Because of the EPA’s lack of regulations on asbestos, the substance was used in the construction of most schools still standing today.
As asbestos hides in schools, students, teachers and school staff have to worry about their health and brace for the possibility of being displaced from school due to dangerous levels of asbestos. If the EPA publicized the risks of asbestos and implemented regulations decades ago, asbestos in schools would not be such a widespread issue.
Corporations That Contributed to School Asbestos Issues
Large corporations spearheading the asbestos era can also be held responsible for the toxic substance’s presence in schools too. Companies responsible for the manufacturing and distribution of asbestos materials play a big role in the asbestos in schools epidemic.
A common type of asbestos exposure is occupational, which means exposure occurred at work. Many people were exposed to asbestos while working for corporations that manufactured asbestos materials, such as electrical wiring, pipe coverings, boilers, paint sealants and more.
Exposing the workforce to asbestos without warning them wasn’t enough. The big corporations brought the cancer-causing minerals into schools, too.
The main source of asbestos in schools is within building materials. It was used as an insulator and can be found in electrical components, insulation, tiles and appliances throughout schools.
Because asbestos was built into schools decades ago, many schools are due for renovations. Often during remodeling of old buildings, contractors uncover old asbestos and must follow proper procedures for reporting and removing asbestos, which often prolongs the process.
School Administrators Who Failed to Report Asbestos
In some instances, asbestos in schools is not an issue because the substance is concealed and cannot be disturbed easily. However, asbestos becomes an issue when it is disturbed and uncovered.
If asbestos is uncovered in a school, the school’s administrators have strict guidelines to follow when reporting it and planning removal. Sometimes, it is revealed that administrators knew about the dangerous levels of exposed asbestos and did nothing about it, risking the lives of everyone at the school.
There have even been instances where school personnel have covered up incidents of asbestos. By doing this, the asbestos issue becomes more and more dangerous until it’s almost impossible to ignore. Neglecting or avoiding asbestos in schools will make the removal process much more tedious.
The effects of asbestos exposure can be deadly, which is why following asbestos in schools guidelines is imperative. Failure to report asbestos in a school can lead to criminal charges of endangerment.
How to Fix Issue of Asbestos in Schools
The issue of asbestos in schools cannot be solved overnight. There have been great strides to eliminate the use of asbestos in schools. Now, the focus is finding the asbestos hiding within the building.
As previously mentioned, there are many to blame for the overwhelming presence of asbestos in schools. Administrators and other school officials who notice or know of asbestos need to take the steps necessary to keep students, teachers and others safe – which usually means closing the school down to remove asbestos safely.
Once asbestos remediation is complete in all old school buildings, asbestos in schools will no longer be an issue in the United States.
Sources & Author
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- National Center for Education Statistics. How Old Are America’s Public Schools? Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs99/1999048.pdf. Accessed: 12/12/2022.
- Toxic City: Sick Schools. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/inq/lead-paint-poison-children-asbestos-mold-schools-philadelphia-toxic-city-20180503.html. Accessed: 12/12/2022.
- School Profiles. The School District of Philadelphia. Retrieved from: https://schoolprofiles.philasd.org/. Accessed: 12/12/2022.
- Students will get back inside Ben Franklin High, SLA after a long delay, $50M in renovations. The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/ben-franklin-sla-construction-delay-asbestos-building-reopen-20200217.html. Accessed: 12/13/2022.
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