Philadelphia School District officials waited more than a month to address warnings of possible asbestos contamination and exposure inside the gym at T.M. Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
The lack of urgency is a stark contrast to how the district responded last month to similar alarms at Meredith Elementary in South Philadelphia, where officials closed the gym to students and staff two days after an inspection found damaged asbestos pipe insulation there.
The district’s leadership has come under fire for its mishandling of asbestos contamination during construction at the shared Benjamin Franklin High School-Science Leadership Academy campus, resulting in the abrupt closure of the building and the relocation of 1,000 students. The closure followed heightened concerns about asbestos exposure after a longtime Meredith teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-linked cancer.
At Peirce, during a Sept. 16 union meeting, teachers voiced concern to Jerry Roseman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental scientist, about damaged asbestos and flaking lead paint throughout the building.
Peirce’s physical education teacher said he was particularly worried about frayed asbestos on pipe insulation in the gym, a “high-activity" area easily struck by basketballs, where he had noticed debris on the floor. Afterward, Roseman inspected the gym and urged district officials to shut the space to students and staff, just as he had at Meredith, a school whose population is, on the whole, whiter and wealthier than Peirce’s.
On Sept. 18, State Sen. Sharif Street (D., Phila.), whose district includes Peirce, toured the school, which enrolls 437 students in grades K-6, stopping at the gym.
“I was very disturbed,” Street said Wednesday. “As best as I could tell, there was exposed asbestos that the children had access to, and there also appeared to be a significant amount of flaking lead paint. It seemed to be pretty rampant.”
Street said he discussed his concerns with district and school board leaders, and they assured him something would be done. Roseman said he talked to the district about conditions at Peirce twice in September. On Oct. 1, Roseman followed up with an email to the district.
The district did not take action, however, and children spent Wednesday playing in the gym.
Antoine Little, a Peirce parent, was angered by news that damaged asbestos insulation was flagged as a health hazard in his children’s gym last month, but nothing has been done about it.
“I’m floored," Little said Thursday morning. “We haven’t received any notice of this.”
The Inquirer questioned the district about the damaged asbestos in Peirce’s gym on Wednesday. In an email that day, a spokesperson said the district was sending a third-party building inspector to Peirce on Thursday. That inspector is to come up with a plan to address the damaged asbestos pipe insulation. Generally, when damage is found in a “high-traffic area," such as a gym, the district’s environmental staff recommends complete removal of all asbestos material, the spokesperson said.
“There is a basic level of remediation that they should have already done,” Street said. “Certainly there has been an insufficient response. This is really bad, and I saw it, and I think it should be the highest priority.”
During the tour, Roseman, PFT president Jerry Jordan, and Street said they also saw flaking lead paint and unsealed lead abatement work areas just “feet from where children were learning,” Jordan later wrote.
When intact and in good condition, asbestos is not considered a health concern. But when damaged by pipe leaks, as was the case at Peirce, asbestos insulation is considered extremely hazardous because it can become “friable," or easily crumbled, releasing microscopic fibers that can cause cancer when inhaled.
A 2018 Inquirer investigation, “Toxic City: Sick Schools," revealed that the district can take months — and in some cases, years — to remove or repair damaged “friable” asbestos, even when its own environmental experts flag it as a “high priority” or an “imminent hazard.”
District officials have lamented that they’re saddled with aging buildings and hampered by a lack of funds and staff needed to adequately address an overwhelming amount of asbestos in most of its schools. The result is a haphazard response to damaged asbestos — an approach that has stirred already raw emotions about whether the district reacts more quickly to environmental problems when complaints are waged by highly vocal, organized parents at schools with a more affluent student population.
Sylvia Simms, a former School Reform Commission member, has nieces and nephews who attend Peirce. She said she was not surprised that damaged friable asbestos remained untreated for weeks at the school.
“Nobody is fighting for poor people,” said Simms. “Poor parents are not coming together on issues and concerns about our children. The district does whatever they want to us.”