Philadelphia Teacher Sues District Over Asbestos-Related Cancer

Legislation & Litigation

Juan Namnun, an award-winning health and physical education teacher at Frankford High School in Philadelphia, was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma in 2022. His diagnosis led him to file a lawsuit against The School District of Philadelphia.

Papillary carcinoma is a rare type of breast cancer. Following his diagnosis, Namnum underwent a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery and chemotherapy

Namnum’s lawsuit claims his diagnosis is “a direct and proximate result of [his] repeated exposure to and inhalation of excessive amounts of asbestos fibers and dust at Frankford High school over a period of multiple decades.” He began working at the high school in 2001. 

The lawsuit also alleges the school district covered up asbestos contamination at the high school. Thomas Bosworth, Namnun’s asbestos lawyer, contends the school district failed to inform students and staff about the risk of asbestos exposure at the school for several decades.

Bosworth points to federal reports that mention abatements at the school since 1989. The lawsuit also names asbestos manufacturers and several companies that conducted environmental testing as defendants.

“This is a systemic, long-standing issue that didn’t happen overnight,” Bosworth said. “I think that’s the most alarming part to me.”

He added, “The fact that those abatement activities have been going on for, what, now almost 40 years, proves that the school district has known this is a big problem. The elephant in the room here is that we’re talking about children. At the end of the day, schools are where kids go. It’s inexcusable in my view.” 

Asbestos in Philadelphia Schools

Asbestos in Philadelphia schools has been a documented ongoing issue. Exposure to the toxic mineral is the primary cause of mesothelioma and is linked to a number of other cancers.

A trio of Philadelphia educators filed a lawsuit in August 2023 claiming their right to protest asbestos exposure was violated. The suit claims the School District of Philadelphia punished the teachers after a 2021 protest of occupational exposure.

In March 2023, the district discovered plaster in Building 21 of the North Philadelphia West Oak Lane neighborhood was falsely labeled “asbestos-free” since the 1990s. The district was forced to reassess asbestos exposure in several school buildings.

Plaster mislabeled “asbestos-free” was also found in Frankford High School where Namnum teaches and 9 other area schools. All 10 schools then switched to virtual learning while the buildings underwent asbestos abatement.

Philadelphia teacher Lea DiRusso settled a lawsuit against the district in 2020 for $850,000. DiRusso was diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease after nearly 30 years of teaching.The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requires school inspections for materials containing asbestos and management plans to reduce exposure risks. The AHERA report covering the 2018-2019 school term documented more than 100 asbestos sources inside one building alone within the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia.

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