Each September, I regularly write notes excusing my patients from school for their annual doctor’s office appointments. Recently, one mom waved my note away, saying, “She didn’t have school today due to the asbestos.” In fact, by October, students in this patient’s school had already missed nine days due to environmental hazards, including lead and asbestos. As of Dec. 20, asbestos had closed six schools in Philadelphia.
At a time of year when school absences due to colds and viruses become commonplace complaints in my office, hearing about asbestos concerns is an unwelcome addition.
My daughter also walks the halls of a school cited as a lead and asbestos risk. Instead of offering her the usual platitudes about learning, I find myself shouting, “Don’t drink the water!” as she skips into a building lined with asbestos insulation and lead paint.
Prior to learning about these environmental threats, I thought the greatest challenge of choosing a public school education in an urban environment was the often overcrowded and underfunded classrooms. I did not know that this choice would also mean more children potentially breathing in asbestos fibers and less money to remediate it.
The damage from these exposures will not be apparent for years after these children stop being my patients. That doesn’t make me any less concerned, however, as children are particularly at risk for asbestos exposure, the effects of which can shorten their life expectancy. I am terrified for these children, who, while trying to learn to read, could be inhaling asbestos fibers that can cause cancer.
Like the concerned parents in my office, I find myself frustrated with the environmental safety of my South Philly school, and left with more questions than answers on the current state of asbestos remediation. Parents bring their children in to see me hoping I can reassure them, but unfortunately, none of us know how much, if any, asbestos exposure kids are getting. There is no blood test. There are no findings on a pediatric physical exam. So instead, I offer my patients’ families some simple advice: the asbestos ABCs.
A is for advocacy. Write a letter or make a call to the School District and your local elected officials. Tell them that you support the Philly Healthy Schools initiative to ensure that our children have a healthy place to learn.
B is for building. Get into your local school and lend a hand as a volunteer. Parents can give the students more resources and experiences. Schools can benefit from parents chaperoning trips, assisting in the cafeteria or at recess, and running school fund-raisers.
Ask your teacher if you can donate materials for the classroom, including school supplies, hygiene products, and healthy snacks. While you are in the building, if you see any conditions that look concerning, such as peeling paint or exposed pipe insulation, you can report it to the school and email@example.com.
C is for community. Find out when your School Advisory Council — a partnership between parents, teachers, principals, staff, students, and community members — meets. This committee offers a place for you to use your voice and communicate with the school.
When I feel defeated by the enormity of this issue, I am reminded of a pediatric public health hero, Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose research and advocacy brought a national spotlight on the Flint, Mich., water crisis and raised awareness about the dangers of lead. As with lead, we don’t have time to wait and see the deleterious effects of asbestos. Nor do we have the money or resources to remove all the asbestos in schools completely.
We learned from Hanna-Attisha’s work: Our communities need proactive interventions that minimize the risks to students and teachers in asbestos-lined schools. There is no time to waste when children’s health is being compromised. Every day I share the concern of my patients’ families, and I try to offer hope that if we advocate together, we can give our kids a healthier future.
Katie Lockwood is a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, host of “Primary Care Perspectives” podcast, and the parent of two children in Philadelphia.