Asbestos contamination shutters Philly public school buildings

Philadelphia School Asbestos Closures

Five Philadelphia school buildings have closed this year because of asbestos contamination in aging buildings despite officials promising for decades that the structures were safe.

While the Philadelphia school district may be in the headlines, school districts and government entities across the nation face the same leadership challenges to maintain aging infrastructure. About 20% of all public and commercial buildings in the United States contain some asbestos material, according to the EPA.

Costly fix for asbestos contamination

District officials estimate they need at least $7 billion to repair or replace all 300-plus school buildings citywide. One Philadelphia school that was closed for two months for environmental repairs was abruptly shut down again after reopening for one day, after plaster fell from a staircase.

“This does highlight the need to move as quickly as possible to really address the physical condition of these buildings, for sure,” Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “The more you delay, the more this kind of thing is going to pop up.”

Teacher Derrick Houck told the Inquirer that staff “continue to be concerned about the lack of specific information shared directly with our school community regarding the repairs related to asbestos and lead paint. Our students deserve a safe and modern school facility.”

What is asbestos?

  • Classified as a carcinogen by a wide range of federal and international organizations, asbestos causes cancer of the lungs, particularly when inhaled.
  • Asbestos describes six minerals that occur naturally in the environment as bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin threads for commercial and industrial uses. The fibers are resistant to heat, fire and chemicals and do not conduct electricity.
  • Asbestos has been used widely in many industries, such as building and construction for strengthening cement and plastics as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing and sound absorption. The shipbuilding industry has used asbestos to insulate boilers, steam pipes and hot water pipes. The automotive industry uses asbestos in vehicle brake shoes and clutch pads. Asbestos has also been used in ceiling and floor tiles, paints, coatings and adhesives and plastics.
  • Malignant mesothelioma is a cancer of the mesothelium that lines the lung, chest wall and abdomen. Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma. About 3,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Diagnosis typically occurs decades after exposure.

Where is asbestos banned?

In the late 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of asbestos in wallboard patching compounds and gas fireplaces because the fibers could be released during use. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency banned all new uses of asbestos. However, uses developed before 1989 are still allowed in the United States.

In Philadelphia, some city council members there want to create an independent authority to handle school building construction and renovation in the face of the asbestos crisis. The average school building in the district is more than 70 years old.

“This issue is an emergency,” said City Councilman Isaiah Thomas.

Philadelphia officials told district staff and parents to brace for more asbestos discoveries and closures as the district reviews dozens of buildings where paint and plaster previously labeled safe could turn out to actually contain the toxin. Asbestos, once disturbed, can release those tiny toxic fibers.

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