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Asbestos in our Schools – How Worried Should We Be?
Recently the plight of students in Philadelphia schools has garnered a lot of attention – children have been exposed to deadly asbestos fibers as they practiced their A-B-Cs and pondered their math problems. Here’s why that’s a reason to worry.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen, which can be inhaled or ingested and then lodge in the body’s internal tissues where it can cause asbestos disease and cancer, including the deadly cancer mesothelioma. Parents are justifiably concerned about the welfare of their children, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of school personnel who have been exposed to the toxic substance.
Many of our nation’s older schools were constructed with asbestos-containing materials. At least one third of all schools in Pennsylvania were built prior to 1960, during a period when asbestos was incorporated into numerous building materials for its strength, durability, low cost, heat-resistance and sound-deadening qualities. By itself, the presence of asbestos in schools is not necessarily a problem. Asbestos materials sitting in place, undisturbed, don’t constitute a danger to anyone in the vicinity.
However, when those aging construction materials begin to deteriorate and are scraped or bumped, even slightly, especially materials like perforated ceiling tiles, asphalt floor tiles, spray-on insulation in walls, and insulation wrapped around heating pipes, they can crumble, releasing millions of cancer-causing fibrils into the air. These microscopic fibers cannot be seen with the naked eye, and they can stay airborne for days where they can easily be inhaled by anyone. Even worse, the fibers eventually float down to land on students’ desks and books and clothing and hair, even on their lunches, where they can be readily ingested.
It was spring of 2018 when Philadelphia School District officials found high levels of asbestos fibers in a hallway at Philadelphia’s Olney Elementary School. Then four months after an environmental cleanup team supposedly removed the contaminated dust, further testing revealed 10.7 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter in the same hallway, one hundred times greater than the level considered harmful. At that point, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper launched an investigation, sending school staffers into buildings at 19 older schools in the district to collect material and dust samples, which the Inquirer then had tested for asbestos content at the reputable International Asbestos Testing Laboratories in southern New Jersey.
Reporters submitted dilapidated pipe insulation, crumbling floor tiles, dust samples and other debris from 84 different surfaces. Of the eleven dust samples submitted to the laboratory, nine contained significant amounts of asbestos fibers. These samples had been collected from student-accessible areas such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, cafeterias, hallways and classrooms. The floor of one classroom closet, where students stored backpacks, lunches and jackets every day, tested positive for asbestos at four million fibers per square centimeter, fifty times more than the highest result for dust found inside apartments near ground zero after the 9/11 terror attacks. Reporters also found that some crumbling insulation and other visibly-deteriorating asbestos-laden materials at the schools, which had been marked in 2016 by school officials for “high priority” removal, were still in place and exposed to students and teachers two years later.
A finding of 100,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter in surface dust indicates a dangerous level of asbestos that should be addressed immediately, according to occupational health experts. The truth is that there is no safe level of asbestos, which can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and the rare but exceedingly aggressive cancer mesothelioma, which occurs in the lining of the lungs, abdomen or heart, and can develop even decades after exposure to the dust. Children might be even more susceptible, since their bodies are still developing, and they may inhale or ingest large amounts of dust as they engage in typical school-day activities, such as sitting on the floor for story time, picking their backpacks up from the floor, and eating their lunch with hands that have touched dust-covered places.
Children at Risk
Seven additional schools in the Philadelphia area have been closed during the 2019-2020 school year due to possible asbestos contamination. Christine Oliver, a former Harvard Medical School professor and author of a 1991 study about the health impacts of asbestos on custodial staff at Boston public schools, remarked that there shouldn’t be any asbestos in any dust anywhere in schools. “Settled dust is settled one minute and then the next minute, it’s entrained and it’s in the air and in your breathing zone.” The fact is that mesothelioma can develop in anyone who has been exposed to asbestos, not just in adults who worked with it at their jobsites.
Our children are far too precious to be exposed to such a deadly hazard in their places of learning. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, please complete our contact form at Baron & Budd to learn what your rights are, and how your personal circumstances may qualify you to seek restitution for asbestos exposure.