Timeline: Asbestos Crisis in Philadelphia Schools

Asbestos Crisis in Philadelphia Schools

The Philadelphia School District has become the epicenter of the national issue of toxic asbestos in U.S. schools.

Since October 2019, eleven Philadelphia schools have partially or fully closed for remediation of damaged asbestos materials.

The Philadelphia School District will spend $14 million to address the ongoing asbestos crisis that made headlines last fall.

Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr. said approximately 80% of Philadelphia schools were built prior to 1978 and are likely to contain asbestos.

The school district’s asbestos problems have potentially already caused serious health consequences.

Map of asbestos issues in Philadelphia schools

Major Events in Philadelphia Schools Asbestos Crisis

The following timeline highlights the ongoing asbestos concerns in Philadelphia schools.

May 2018

The problem first came to light in May 2018 when The Philadelphia Inquirer published its investigation into environmental hazards at local schools. At the time, school officials said it would take $3 billion and 10 years to resolve the problem.

August 2019

School teacher Lea DiRusso was diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer at 51 years old after teaching at two asbestos-contaminated Philadelphia schools for nearly 30 years. One of her classrooms at Meredith Elementary contained damaged asbestos pipe insulation.

September 2019

A $37 million renovation project was underway in September 2019 when workers found damaged asbestos materials in Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy.

Sept. 11, 2019

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers held a press conference on Sept. 11 to announce that a teacher (DiRusso) had developed mesothelioma and warned other teachers about the risks of working around asbestos products in schools.

Oct. 4, 2019

Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy shut down on Oct. 4. Damaged asbestos ductwork was reported a month earlier in a boiler room shared by the schools. However, an investigation revealed the school had been improperly abating asbestos since Aug. 2018. About a thousand students were relocated to other schools.

Oct. 24, 2019

T.M. Peirce Elementary in north Philadelphia was partially closed in late October after asbestos was found in the gym. The school fully closed and relocated students to a temporary building in December. It remains closed.

November 2019

On Nov. 12, damaged asbestos materials were found in the boiler room and near heating units in Pratt Early Childhood Center. The school was quickly closed and students and staff were relocated. It remains closed.

Dec. 10, 2019

Following three rounds of conventional chemotherapy, DiRusso underwent cytoreductive surgery and heated intraperitoneal chemotherapy. Her mesothelioma had spread to her ovaries, uterus and small bowel.

Dec. 17, 2019

Franklin Learning Center closed Dec. 17 after damaged asbestos materials were found in an air shaft connecting the attic to the fan room. Franklin Learning Center reopened on Jan. 2.

Dec. 19, 2019

Alexander K. McClure Elementary and Laura H. Carnell Elementary were closed on Dec. 19. Asbestos was found in more than a dozen locations within McClure, including classrooms, hallways and stairwells. Carnell reopened on Jan. 13.

Jan. 15, 2020

McClure Elementary reopened on Jan. 15 but closed again two days later after air sample tests revealed dangerous levels of airborne asbestos. Parents, teachers and students protested in front of McClure on Jan. 17 demanding safer conditions. Further cleanup continued, and the school reopened on Jan. 29.

Jan. 21, 2020

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit on Jan. 21 against the school district for insufficient asbestos testing and negligence for failing to take appropriate action.

Feb. 2, 2020

Students, parents and staff from Franklin Learning Center gathered outside the school to protest environmental conditions inside the building, claiming the work was incomplete.

Feb. 3, 2020

Francis Hopkinson Elementary was closed indefinitely on Feb. 3 after a district walk-through found 55 locations with asbestos contamination, including the cafeteria. Additionally, damaged asbestos pipe insulation was found in an unoccupied room at the school.

Feb. 13, 2020

Clara Barton Elementary and James J. Sullivan Elementary closed on Feb. 13 after asbestos was found in various locations throughout the schools. Barton reopened a week later, while Sullivan is expected to reopen the last week of February.

Feb. 18, 2020

Benjamin Franklin High School and the Science Leadership Academy reopened after closing on Oct. 4, 2019.

Feb. 20, 2020

Charles W. Henry School closed off a classroom on Feb. 20 after a leak damaged asbestos pipe insulation inside the room. The room will remain closed to students and staff until the damage is fixed.

Feb. 24, 2020

Clara Barton Elementary reopened after being closed for more than a week.

Feb. 26, 2020

The city of Philadelphia announced it had hired an environmental firm to help address the asbestos issues in local schools. The city will pay Arc Environmental, a Baltimore-based firm, up to $90,000 through the end of the school year to assist the district in establishing asbestos abatement protocols.

Feb. 27, 2020

The Philadelphia School Board signed off on an $850,000 settlement with DiRusso, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma after teaching in city schools for 30 years.

District Needs $125M in New Funding for Remediation

Superintendent Hite explained the school district would not approve major construction projects in the future without assessing for asbestos and other dangers.

“If we’re going to do a renovation or modernization, we’re going to go in and remove all of the environmental hazards,” Hite told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hite said the school district needs $125 million in new funding in the next five years to remediate lead and asbestos contamination.

What Parents Can Do About Asbestos in Schools

Parents of students in Philadelphia schools can educate their children about the dangers of asbestos exposure and how to identify products that are likely to contain asbestos so they can avoid them.

Asbestos may be found in floor and ceiling tiles, and in insulation applied to pipes, boilers, walls and ceilings.

­If a student suspects they’ve found damaged asbestos materials at school, they should tell their parents.

Parents should report the issue to the local school district and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

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Daniel King joined Asbestos.com in 2017. He comes from a military family and attended high school on an Air Force base in Japan, so he feels a close connection to veterans, military families and the many hardships they face. As an investigative writer with interests in mesothelioma research and environmental issues, he seeks to educate others about the dangers of asbestos exposure to protect them from the deadly carcinogen. Daniel holds several certificates in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

25 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

  1. WPVI-TV. (2020, February 20). Another Philadelphia school dealing with asbestos issues as other students relocated.
    Retrieved from: https://6abc.com/5950810/
  2. NBC News. (2020, February 20). Full transcript: Ninth Democratic debate in Las Vegas.
    Retrieved from: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/full-transcript-ninth-democratic-debate-las-vegas-n1139546
  3. Winberg, M. (2020, February 20). Philly school asbestos problem: What’s closed, what’s open and what’s being done.
    Retrieved from: https://billypenn.com/2020/02/19/philly-school-asbestos-problem-whats-closed-whats-open-and-whats-being-done/
  4. Graham, K.A. (2020, February 17). Students will get back inside Ben Franklin High, SLA after a long delay, $50M in renovations.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/ben-franklin-sla-construction-delay-asbestos-building-reopen-20200217.html
  5. Ralph, P. (2020, February 17). Source: James J. Sullivan Elementary to remain closed for the remainder of the week due to asbestos cleanup.
    Retrieved from: https://www.phillyvoice.com/james-j-sullivan-elementary-school-philadelphia-asbestos/
  6. The School District of Philadelphia. (2020, February 12). Clara Barton, James Sullivan Schools to Close Thursday, Friday.
    Retrieved from: https://www.philasd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/REL-Barton-Sullivan-Closed-021220-1.pdf
  7. Graham, K.A. (2020, February 7). Hopkinson Elementary closed indefinitely for asbestos, lead paint cleanup.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/hopkinson-elementary-asbestos-closed-philly-school-indefinitely-20200207.html
  8. Busch, K. (2020, February 4). Widespread asbestos in Phila. public schools prompts health concerns.
    Retrieved from: https://www.thedp.com/article/2020/02/asbestos-philly-public-school-toxic-penn
  9. Graham, K.A. and Ruderman, W. (2020, February 2). Asbestos forces closure of another Philly school.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/asbestos-philadelphia-school-hopkinson-20200203.html
  10. Graham, K.A. (2020, January 30). Philadelphia School District will spend at least $14 million to address asbestos crisis.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/school-board-asbestos-principals-union-contracts-20200131.html
  11. Ruderman, W. (2020, January 20). Philadelphia teachers’ union takes legal action against School District over asbestos.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/asbestos-philadelphia-schools-teachers-union-mcclure-elementary-20200120.html
  12. WPVI-TV. (2020, January 17). McClure Elementary School in Hunting Park closed again due to asbestos.
    Retrieved from: https://6abc.com/education/mcclure-elementary-school-closed-again-due-to-asbestos-/5857845/
  13. WPVI-TV. (2020, January 16). Hopkinson Elementary School to stay open after asbestos discovery.
    Retrieved from: https://6abc.com/health/another-philadelphia-school-is-dealing-with-asbestos/5856433/
  14. Hangley, B. (2020, January 10). McClure will reopen in stages, starting Wednesday; parents concerned.
    Retrieved from: https://thenotebook.org/articles/2020/01/10/mcclure-will-re-open-in-stages-starting-wednesday-parents-concerned/
  15. Graham, K.A. (2020, January 2). North Philadelphia elementary school to remain closed due to asbestos concerns.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/asbestos-environmental-hazard-franklin-learning-center-mcclure-20200103.html
  16. The School District of Philadelphia. (2019, December 17). School closing.
    Retrieved from: https://flc.philasd.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/337/2019/12/SchoolClosing.pdf
  17. Ruderman, W. and Graham, K.A. (2019, November 21). Cancer in the classroom.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/a/mesothelioma-philadelphia-school-district-lea-dirusso-cancer-20191121.html
  18. CBS3. (2019, November 19). Philadelphia School District Announces Asbestos Plan Same Day Pratt Early Childhood Center To Be Closed To Deal With Issue.
    Retrieved from: https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2019/11/19/pratt-early-childhood-center-latest-philadelphia-school-impacted-by-asbestos/
  19. Ruderman, W. and Graham, K.A. (2019, October 18). Missed asbestos, dangerous dust: How Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin H.S. project went wrong.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/asbestos-school-construction-philadelphia-ben-franklin-sla-20191018.html
  20. CBS3. (2019, October 4). 2 Philadelphia Schools To Remain Closed Indefinitely Due To Asbestos Concerns.
    Retrieved from: https://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2019/10/04/philadelphia-schools-benjamin-franklin-high-science-leadership-academy-closed-indefinitely-asbestos-concerns/
  21. Graham, K.A. and Ruderman, W. (2019, October 4). Asbestos-tainted Philly school building to be closed indefinitely; district seeks alternate sites for 1,000 students.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/asbestos-ben-franklin-sla-building-school-closed-20191004.html
  22. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. (2019, September 18). PFT Releases Action Plan for Asbestos in Schools.
    Retrieved from: https://pft.org/pft-asbestos-action-plan/
  23. Graham, K.A., Ruderman, W. and Laker, B. (2019, September 11). Teachers’ union investigating a possible cancer link to Philly schools, warns of hazards.
    Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/asbestos-cancer-school-philadelphia-meredith-nebinger-teachers-20190911.html
  24. Mezzacappa, D. and Hangley, B. (2019, September 11). PFT, officials demand $100 million to clean up city schools after teacher’s cancer diagnosis.
    Retrieved from: https://thenotebook.org/articles/2019/09/11/pft-officials-demand-100-million-to-clean-up-city-schools-after-teachers-cancer-diagnosis/
  25. Laker, B., Ruderman, W. and Purcell, D. (2018, May 3). Danger: Learn At Your Own Risk. Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/news/inq/lead-paint-poison-children-asbestos-mold-schools-philadelphia-toxic-city-20180503.html

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