The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) recently brought a lawsuit against the city’s school district. The teachers allege that the district has failed to protect staff and teachers, numbering approximately 13,000 and 125,000, from asbestos in old buildings. Several schools have been closed in recent months due to damaged asbestos that has the potential to cause exposure and resulting illnesses, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
Aging School Buildings and Asbestos
Many of Philadelphia’s school buildings are older and contain asbestos, which is not unusual. At one time nearly all building across the country were constructed with some type of asbestos. It was used in insulation, cement and wall board, flooring tiles, roofing and siding materials, and fireproofing materials.
Asbestos in older buildings is not harmful if it is well maintained. It is only when asbestos materials break down or are disturbed by work or accidents that they become dangerous. Then the fibers of the asbestos mineral can become airborne, contaminating the area and leading to exposure through inhalation or ingestion.
In older buildings containing asbestos these materials must be maintained regularly. Over time they can decay and fall apart, causing the risk of exposure.
Philadelphia Closes Schools for Safety Reasons
Between October of 2019 and January of 2020 the district shut down six buildings because of damaged asbestos materials. Inspectors in the district found these spots that had either been missed on previous inspections or were never repaired.
Federal laws require that school buildings be tested for asbestos in the air after big jobs involving asbestos materials. Districts must also inspect buildings every three years, regardless of any work being done. The Philadelphia district has claimed to have complied with these regulations.
Teachers Sue as Final Straw
The current legal filing by the PFT comes after the district closed yet another building, McClure Elementary School. This was after the second of two air tests came back positive for asbestos. The district had previously told teachers and parents that the building was safe, and these results only came after teachers demanded the additional air test.
The PFT filed its asbestos lawsuit with the state’s Common Pleas Court. It seeks to get immediate relief from the issues and requests that a judge take action right away to force the district to meet the union’s demands. These include regular and thorough testing of all buildings, a court-approved plan for protecting teachers and students, and that all testing and inspection be done with the PFT involved directly in the process.
The teachers and parents of the Philadelphia schools have been complaining about asbestos safety for months. Some parents have even chosen to keep their children home and have been threatened with Truancy Court by the district. The lawsuit represents a strong step taken by teachers, with the support of parents, to demand safety from asbestos for staff and children.