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Despite recent cleanups, Philadelphia schools still expose kids and teachers to asbestos

The Philadelphia school district spent the summer cleaning up seven schools where the Inquirer's "Toxic City: Sick Schools" investigation found the highest numbers of cancer-causing asbestos fibers. Then, new problems surfaced.

Paid contractors at J.H. Brown Elementary said asbestos was safely removed from this classroom this summer. This photo was taken a day later. The debris contained asbestos, tests revealed.
Paid contractors at J.H. Brown Elementary said asbestos was safely removed from this classroom this summer. This photo was taken a day later. The debris contained asbestos, tests revealed.Read morePhiladelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund / Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health & Welfare Fund

After the successful cleanup of more than half a dozen schools, and with 38 more planned, the School District of Philadelphia is getting accolades for its aggressive, revamped efforts to protect students from lead paint.

Now, city lawmakers and advocates for healthy schools are urging district officials to apply the lessons learned from lead-paint remediation and tackle an equally pressing crisis: asbestos.

“We know it’s a big issue. Let’s start working on a plan,” said Councilman-at-Large Derek Green. “Just like we did with lead, let’s be proactive with asbestos as well."

The district continues to falter with asbestos abatement, hampered by limited resources and an ineffective strategy for safeguarding kids and teachers from exposure to the cancer-causing fibers. Recently obtained documents, photos, and emails reveal a district that triages asbestos-related emergencies and blunders, rather than apply comprehensive reforms.

In the wake of the Inquirer’s “Toxic City: Sick Schools” investigation, the district spent the summer inspecting and cleaning up seven elementary schools where the newspaper found alarming levels of asbestos fibers. As an added precaution, the district, alongside environmental experts with the teachers' union, tested the air for any lingering fibers. In some cases, they re-cleaned after air tests failed.

“All areas passed the re-occupancy criteria … and are safe for students and staff,” the district announced in September.

But not really.

At two of the seven schools, the district quickly found itself scrambling to clean up new asbestos contamination. On Sept. 18, district officials discovered damaged asbestos insulation in a school auditorium that was just cleaned and reopened to students. On Oct. 8, a building engineer trainee stripped insulation from a steam pipe and left asbestos debris on the floor of a sixth-grade classroom. The room was just down the hall from an area where samples taken by the newspaper had found a staggering 10.7 million asbestos fibers four months earlier.

At another elementary school that was not one of the seven, an asbestos-removal crew in July said its repairs were done and a district-hired environmental consultant deemed the areas safe. But asbestos fibers, dust, and debris were left strewed across classroom floors, records show.

These incidents mirror problems first pointed out in “Toxic City” this past spring: inadequate training of maintenance workers, shoddy work by contractors, and poor oversight of their work.

Asbestos can be found all over schools built before 1980: wrapped around heating pipes and air ducts as insulation, sprayed on ceilings as soundproofing, and woven into floor tiles.

Kept intact, asbestos is not dangerous. But once damaged, microscopic asbestos fibers can become airborne and float for hours. If inhaled, they can, decades later, cause mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.

Elementary and middle school teachers, along with building maintenance staff, rank near the top among the professions most at risk for asbestos-related disease, research show. Children are at increased risk for exposure because they are more active, their breathing rate is higher than adults, and they spend more time close to floors where fibers can accumulate, according to a new federal report.

“It is very important to not underestimate the very real cancer exposure that could happen for children who are exposed in a school and perhaps repeatedly over the course of being there for six years or more,” said Marilyn Howarth, a physician and the director of community outreach and engagement at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.

Training lapse

To protect Philadelphia district students and staff from the perils of asbestos, building engineers and custodians must operate, in effect, as first responders.

But if an October incident at Olney Elementary is any guide, the district is still placing kids in danger. There, a building engineer trainee ripped a loose three-foot section of asbestos insulation from a steam pipe in a sixth-grade classroom, leaving behind debris.

He stuffed the insulation in a garbage bag, carried it through the school, then tossed it into a Dumpster — in violation of several federal, state, and local environmental safety regulations.

For two days, students and their teacher remained in Room 301 — until the district learned of the incident, sealed off the room, and relocated the students.

In a letter to parents, the district said a facilities staffer “accidentally disturbed” the material. “To prevent this from happening again, all asbestos pipe insulation will be abated from the room.”

It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. Under federal law, the district must give two hours of “asbestos awareness training” to all district building engineers, custodians, and maintenance workers. The Olney building staffer took the course in December 2015, a district official would later say. Last month, when questioned by a reporter outside the school, the man said he didn’t realize the material was asbestos.

Unsafe levels

The auditorium at J. Hampton Moore Elementary serves as a kind of poster child for the district’s often-losing battle to stay on top of its asbestos hazards.

For years, the auditorium suffered repeated damage to its aging asbestos floor tiles. District workers would make repairs only to find more cracked and missing tiles by the next inspection. A leaky roof exacerbated the chronic problem.

This past May, the Inquirer warned the district that dust-wipe samples, taken by a staffer and analyzed by an accredited laboratory on the newspaper’s behalf, found menacing amounts of asbestos fibers on the auditorium floor.

High asbestos contamination

This past summer, the Philadelphia school district cleaned up asbestos at seven elementary schools with the highest contamination found by our independent testing. Reporters analyzed dust samples for asbestos from 87 surfaces inside 11 Philadelphia district schools. Nine of the schools had elevated asbestos fiber counts in student areas. Half of the samples were above 5,000 fibers per square centimeter, the level the EPA set to qualify for federal cleanup of apartments near Ground Zero.

SOURCE: Samples independently obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer; Analysis conducted by International Asbestos Testing Laboratories

The newspaper’s finding prompted the district to replace damaged floor tile and thoroughly clean the auditorium in late August. But, just two days before the first day of school, the district’s air tests revealed unsafe levels of asbestos fibers in the auditorium and first floor. An environmental crew scrambled to re-clean the areas and the school opened just under the wire on Aug. 27.

Then on Sept. 18, after a heavy rain, soggy ceiling tiles in the auditorium fell to the floor, exposing “wetted” and “loose” asbestos insulation around an air duct above the ceiling, documents show. District officials were forced to seal off the auditorium and begin a massive abatement project.

The auditorium remains closed to students and staff.

Sound an alarm

When it comes to the tricky work of cleaning up asbestos, district officials offer a common refrain: Don’t worry, we hire environmental experts to closely monitor crews at work, then test the air to make sure it is safe.

But sometimes this safety net fails.

This summer, asbestos workers from Controlled Environmental Systems, or CES, said they had successfully abated asbestos in four classrooms at Joseph H. Brown Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia.

Then an inspector for a district-hired firm, Criterion Laboratories, reported that “the area contains no visible dust or debris.” He tested the air for asbestos fibers and then OKed the areas as safe, according to his report.

Yet the next day, Jerry Roseman, environmental science director for the teachers’ union, discovered white dust and chunks of asbestos in three of the rooms and sounded the alarm to the district, records show.

“This is a serious issue that warrants urgent and further attention,” he wrote in an email to top district environmental officials.

The district had CES clean up the asbestos before the school reopened and “no students and staff were at risk of asbestos exposure from the work,” district spokesperson Lee Whack recently wrote in an email to reporters.

As for its part, the district acknowledged its hired expert made mistakes and, as a remedy, sent him “written guidelines reiterating the proper testing protocol.”

A Criterion employee said he couldn’t comment without permission from the School District.

Michael Fox, vice president of CES, said he didn’t know how the asbestos debris ended up in the classrooms but “most likely” his workers weren’t to blame.

The district didn’t hold it against his firm, he said. “They asked us to stay and keep cleaning the whole school … and they paid us to do that.”

The district found trouble with CES’s work in the past.

In summer 2008, during an abatement job at Elverson Military Academy, CES workers dumped insulation down an air shaft — spreading carcinogenic fibers throughout the school and even contaminating $40,000 of military uniforms that had to be carefully destroyed, a district report shows.

As with the July 2018 job, the environmental expert, who in this instance worked for Synertech, had improperly deemed dirty spaces as safe.

In response to the Elverson fiasco, Francine Locke, director of the district’s Office of Environmental Management and Services, proposed that rather than rely solely on the experts, her staffers would double-check their work. She also called, for the first time, for asbestos subcontractors to be “prequalified,” or vetted, by the district.

Her proposed reforms were not adopted.

Until the district gets tougher on contractors, health advocates are pushing it to put in place simple and cheap protective measures. For example, Howarth said district staff could clean problem schools once daily with HEPA vacuums, which can trap extremely small fibers.

The district appears to be listening. This month, school officials announced a plan to hire 40 additional cleaning workers and 10 environmental staffers in time for next school year.

“The kind of cleaning efforts that we’ve talked about in the lead arena would really be very helpful for asbestos as well,” Howarth said.