Outrage over the number “10.7 million” got the School District of Philadelphia to finally act.
Lawmakers and the head of the teachers’ union demanded that the district immediately clean up millions of asbestos fibers from surfaces inside Olney Elementary School.
On Thursday, students and teachers arrived at their school to find that areas had been vacuumed, and damaged asbestos accessible to children and staff had been sealed off. Students with special needs were moved from a classroom that had damaged lead paint and perilous levels of asbestos into a portable classroom.
The cleanup came three days after the Inquirer and Daily News alerted the district to results of testing done recently by the newspapers at Olney.
Olney was one of 19 schools in which reporters enlisted staffers to collect samples of suspected asbestos fibers, lead dust, mold spores and water from drinking fountains as part of the newspapers’ “Toxic City: Sick Schools” series, which examined environmental hazards inside district buildings. An accredited laboratory analyzed the samples.
The highest result — 10.7 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter — was found on a floor outside a classroom near an asbestos-insulated pipe that district officials had claimed was fixed in February. That result is more than 100 times higher than the level that health experts say is cause for alarm.
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Also on Thursday, about 75 students and a dozen teachers and parents held a “Toxic Teach Out” outside Furness High School in the South Philadelphia neighborhood of Pennsport. They recently had learned from the series that their school was full of deteriorating lead paint. They were making the point that it was safer to hold classes outside rather than inside.
Student leaders organized the protest after they researched conditions at Furness using School Checkup, a search tool created by the newspapers to give users a picture of environmental hazards in schools, down to the individual classroom. To create the tool, reporters combined more than 250,000 environmental records from more than 200 district-run schools.
“When the articles came out, it made us realize that this problem wasn’t just something that we were facing here at Furness, but that the problem was district-wide,” said Nancy Dung Nguyen, executive director of VietLead, which helped organize the student action and is trying to start a garden there. That effort stalled after students and others tested two outdoor metal staircases overhanging their future garden plots and found lead.
After reading about the Olney test results in an article published Wednesday, City Councilwoman Helen Gym and Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, visited the school to see for themselves. They were joined by Jerry Roseman, the environmental science director for the teachers’ union, and two inspectors from firms representing the School District.
During a tour, Jordan said he was aghast when he saw the conditions, particularly inside the “autistic support” classroom.
“I was absolutely horrified by the lead paint on the ceiling in the bathroom that the children use,” he said. “There were sheets of it hanging. You could see lots of pieces that had fallen down.”
Reporters had tested there for lead dust last month. The results from dust on a chair measured 1,700 micrograms of lead per square foot — 42 times higher than the federal hazard level for residential floors.
Lead paint falling from a ceiling poisoned at least one child in a district school recently. First grader Dean Pagan, 7, had been hospitalized for severe lead poisoning after he ate paint chips that fell on his desk at Watson Comly Elementary.
The district also closed the women’s staff bathroom at Olney, where the newspapers’ tests found 4.7 million asbestos fibers on the floor.
District spokesman Lee Whack said trained asbestos workers will remove or encapsulate pipe insulation and thoroughly clean the areas with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) vacuum this weekend. The air will be tested for asbestos fibers to make sure the building is safe before students and staff can return, he said.
After visiting Olney on Wednesday, Roseman said he identified damaged asbestos that should be repaired in all areas where the newspapers’ tests found millions of asbestos fibers.
Among the three areas they focused on during the walkthrough was the pipe that tested at 10.7 million asbestos fibers in late May. Four months earlier, the newspapers’ testing at the same location measured 8.5 million asbestos fibers. A reporter immediately told the School District, and officials said they sent an environmental team a week later to address the problem.
School officials said that a metal jacket over the pipe was loose, and workers tightened it. The district hired Vertex, an Aston-based environmental firm, to oversee the work. A Vertex inspector tested the air and deemed it safe for students and staffers to return, according to a company report.
Roseman said Thursday the metal sleeve was still loose. “It was not fully secured, so you could release fibers,” he said.
The newspapers’ independent testing found that nine schools had concerning amounts of asbestos fibers in student accessible areas, including gyms, classrooms and hallways.
Asbestos, which can cause lung diseases and cancer when inhaled over time, is not dangerous if kept in good condition. But years of wear and tear in the district’s old buildings can cause it to crumble and release microscopic fibers that can stay aloft for hours.
District officials have criticized how the newspapers tested for asbestos contamination, calling it “unscientific.” They say that air testing, not surface wipes, is a more accurate way to assess asbestos hazards and is the only testing method required by federal law.
Outside environmental experts, however, say dust wipe samples are a sound investigative tool to identify potential hot spots for remediation. Any result of 100,000 fibers per square centimeter or higher in surface dust should be immediately addressed, public health and environmental experts say.