Shortly after the School District of Philadelphia learned of alarming levels of asbestos fibers on the floor of a highly traveled hallway inside Olney Elementary School, officials said, they sent an environmental team to fix the problem.
But four months later, the hazard is not gone. In fact, it’s worse. Tests there revealed 10.7 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter, up from 8.5 million.
That latest result is more than 100 times higher than the level that health experts say is cause for alarm.
This recent finding is part of an Inquirer and Daily News investigation, “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” in which reporters enlisted staffers at 19 of the district’s more run-down elementary schools to collect samples of suspected asbestos fibers, lead dust, mold spores, and water from drinking fountains. An accredited laboratory, International Asbestos Testing Laboratories in South Jersey, analyzed the materials.
When reporters learned of the sky-high asbestos result at Olney on June 1, they quickly alerted district officials.
A district spokesman, Lee Whack, would not reply to questions about what steps, if any, the district took or will take in response to the high test result. In an email to reporters Tuesday night, Whack said that the district would look “at the areas at Olney Elementary that have been mentioned.”
“The health and safety of students and staff will always be our top priority,” Whack said. “No single test can ever fully reflect the needs of our school communities.”
Arthur Steinberg, head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, said he was highly disturbed that Olney’s asbestos problem persists.
“They say it’s safe. No one knows whether that’s true or not,” Steinberg said. “They need to have effective oversight so we can feel secure sending kids into these buildings.”
Asbestos, which can cause cancer and other lung diseases when inhaled over time, can be found wrapped around steam pipes, sprayed on walls and ceilings, and woven into floor tiles in schools across the country. Asbestos is not dangerous if kept in good condition, but years of wear and tear can cause it to crumble and release microscopic fibers that can be sent airborne and stay aloft for hours and days.
Of the 19 elementary schools where the newspapers did independent testing, staffers at 11 collected dust samples to test for asbestos fibers. In all, reporters obtained scientific results from 84 different surfaces. Nine of the 11 schools had concerning amounts of asbestos fibers in student-accessible areas, including gyms, classrooms and hallways.
The newspapers’ investigation also found that damaged asbestos has gone unrepaired in schools for up to two years, even when inspectors flagged the repairs as “high priority.”
In his email, Whack criticized how the newspapers tested for asbestos contamination, saying it was “unscientific” and the staffers who collected samples are “not certified, trained professionals and their testing does not meet established industry standards.” District officials have said that air testing, not relying on surface wipes, is a more accurate way to assess asbestos peril and remains the only testing method required by federal law.
“Across our nearly 300 buildings, we remain focused on addressing and prioritizing environmental issues that truly need attention because they have been evaluated according to proven methods,” Whack said.
Outside experts say dust wipe samples are an investigative tool that can help identify potential hot spots in the district’s aging schools. Asbestos fibers can be found in nearly all the pre-1980 district schools. Any result of 100,000 fibers per square centimeter or higher in surface dust should be immediately addressed, public- and occupational-health experts say.
The district uses contractors and its own staff of certified asbestos workers to remove or repair asbestos more than 200 times a year on average, Health Department records show. The district is projected to spend $5 million in this fiscal school year on major asbestos jobs.
Experts such as physician Marilyn Howarth at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania disagree with the School District’s lack of urgency when made aware of asbestos hot spots. Rather than criticizing the reporters’ testing results, the district should take them as a warning and move quickly to conduct its own testing, they said.
There is no safe level of asbestos, which can cause mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive cancer that develops in the lungs, abdomen or heart, even 50 years after exposure, said Howarth, director of community outreach and engagement at Penn’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.
“My feeling about the wipes is, they are a way to determine if fibers are present,” Howarth said. “The finding of many, many fibers in a place that children are is of concern because children [are] walking around schools, sometimes sitting on the floor, sometimes dropping things on the floor and then picking them up. Children often don’t wash their hands as often as they should. There may be many opportunities to mobilize those asbestos fibers into the breathing zone, and we know that it doesn’t take very many asbestos fibers to increase one’s risk for mesothelioma and cancer.”
District officials say they don’t have enough money to immediately repair or remove asbestos from all its buildings. But Howarth said that defense is “not appropriate” when routinely using vacuums with HEPA [high efficiency particulate air] filters and wet mopping could help prevent exposure to the cancer-causing fibers.
“The cleaning strategy — it is really the next best step that can be done right now,” she said.
The district recently said it purchased 155 HEPA vacuums for its 214 schools.
The recent history of attempted asbestos abatement at Olney illustrates the hazards facing students and teachers and staff across the district in its dilapidated buildings.
In January 2016, an inspector hired by the School District for its survey of asbestos hazards, conducted every three years, identified damaged asbestos at six locations at Olney, including inside a women’s staff restroom. At the time, the bathroom repair was termed “high priority” but not an “imminent hazard,” records show.
In September 2017, the district dispatched its “A Team,” or asbestos team, a group of trained staffers, to repair or abate the problems at Olney.
In January, as part of the “Toxic City” investigation, an Olney staffer collected surface dust from five areas in the school, including the floor of this women’s restroom, and a few feet away on the floor near a pipe in a hallway outside Room 311, and provided the samples to a reporter. The South Jersey lab analyzed the samples.
On Jan. 25, test results showed the women’s restroom had 46,300 asbestos fibers per square centimeter in settled dust; the hallway outside Room 311 measured 8.5 million.
A reporter alerted the school district later that day to the alarming findings.
On Feb. 2, the district dispatched the A Team to address the pipe in the hallway. The district also hired Vertex, an Aston-based environmental firm, to oversee the work and take air samples during and after the job.
It is unclear who did what. According to a Vertex asbestos air-monitoring report, dated Feb. 12, pipe insulation was removed, using precautions required by law to contain asbestos fibers.
But in a March interview, Francine Locke, the district’s environmental director, told reporters that the metal jacket shielding the pipe’s asbestos coating was simply tightened.
“We tightened up a pipe so it couldn’t be moved. It was very loose,” she said. “If you tighten it up, it’s still considered abatement.”
After the job was complete, Vertex deemed the air safe for students and staffers to return. The Vertex inspector did not return two phone calls seeking an explanation of the discrepancy between its records and Locke’s account.
After the work was completed, an Olney staffer said the pipe in the hallway looked the same and worried that the microscopic, cancer-causing fibers had not been cleaned up.
Late last month, an Olney staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from the School District, retested the same spot on the floor beneath the pipe just outside Room 311. At the same time, the staffer collected dust wipe samples of other areas.
A retest of the women’s bathroom came back with 4.7 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter and a bathroom floor in an “autistic support” classroom came back at 1.6 million. The classroom, tested for lead dust, returned a sample from a chair in the bathroom that measured at 1,700 micrograms of lead per square foot — more than 42 times higher than the federal hazard level for residential floors.
Other schools and colleges in the region have taken vastly different steps when faced with concerns about asbestos.
In March, an elementary school in Woodbridge, N.J. was closed after asbestos fibers turned up in at least three classrooms and a media center, according to NJ.com.
Last summer, after Temple University workers discovered asbestos floor tiles during a remodel, it closed the fifth floor of its Center City campus building and relocated students and staff during the first week of classes. The university told the Temple News at the time that the closure was precautionary. Before classes could return, Temple had two asbestos firms separately test the air.