Philadelphia School District Takes Fast Action on Asbestos

3 Min Read

three children with backpacks walking

U.S. veterans are not the only ones at risk of asbestos exposure — the problem affects everyone. In fact, parents of children enrolled at Pratt Early Childhood Center in Philadelphia recently learned that the school contained asbestos and had to be closed.

This action came at the same time the district announced plans to aggressively remediate asbestos in their school buildings.

Asbestos exposure is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer with no cure. An inspection at Pratt Elementary School, now in use for the preschool program, revealed damaged asbestos-containing materials in the boiler room.

There is suspicion that that same material may be behind heating unit covers and built-in bookcases.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) issued a statement:

“When the PFT Health & Welfare Fund discovered alarmingly high asbestos levels in the school on November 12, we immediately shared our comprehensive report with the district, emphasizing that it was unsafe for children and school staff to occupy the building.”

District officials took quick action on the findings and made the decision to relocate staff and students to another location, closing the school until the problem is solved.

Allocating Millions for Asbestos Remediation

Philadelphia school officials have taken the threat seriously, as asbestos is often present in older buildings. The district plans to spend $12 Million to remove the asbestos found on its school campuses.

“We know these are lofty goals, but we also know we need to get this right,” said Dr. William Hite, superintendent of the schools.

The district plan includes:

  • Eliminating the backlog of asbestos-related work by September 2020
  • Hiring an environmental consultant
  • Initiating a reporting process for students and teachers who suspect asbestos issues
  • Inspecting schools for asbestos
  • Testing construction projects

Pratt Elementary falls in line as the second Philadelphia school closed for asbestos contamination. Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy closed its doors at the start of the 2019 school year.

In the meantime, a third school — Thomas M. Peirce School, north of downtown — is under scrutiny for the same issues.

Asbestos a National Problem in Country’s Aging School Buildings

Millions of students across the country spend their days in school buildings built before the 1970s, as many structures built in the post-war period still remain in use.

Prior to that time, construction workers used asbestos-laden building materials to cover much of the ceilings, floors, and heating units in public buildings, homes, and U.S. military bases because of the mineral’s excellent fireproofing properties.

The asbestos-infiltrated products pose no problem if they remain intact — but through age and deterioration, floor and ceiling tiles crack and heating unit insulation falls apart.

When this happens, the asbestos contained in the materials becomes “friable” and releases invisibly into the air. People who breathe in or swallow these fibers are then put in harm's way.

Once inside the body, asbestos fibers cannot leave and harm healthy, nearby tissue. After 20-50 years, this irritation can cause mesothelioma tumors to form.

EPA Offers Schools Clear Guidelines

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides U.S. school districts a clear path to identifying and removing asbestos in the nation’s educational facilities.

The Asbestos Emergency Response Act (AHERA) mandates the following requirements to both public and non-profit schools:

  • Inspect buildings once every three years for asbestos
  • Develop an asbestos management plan
  • Notify parent, teacher, and employee organizations annually
  • Designate a contact person to supervise the plan
  • Continually survey known or suspected asbestos-containing building materials
  • Utilize only trained and licensed asbestos professionals for inspection and abatement
  • Ensure all custodial staff receive asbestos awareness training

In addition to educating our nation’s children, school districts across the country tackle this monumental task of keeping our youth safe from asbestos inhalation in aging buildings.

The PFT reflected that closing school buildings and moving students is a disruptive process, but “the long-term health of our schoolchildren and educators is well worth the temporary inconvenience.”

The school district is right to take swift action on the problem so students and teachers stay safe. The U.S. government did the same thing in the early 1980s, enacting a wide-scale military asbestos exposure program to keep those who serve safe.

Veterans Support Team
Beth Swantek PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Writer

  1. CBS Philly. (2019, Nov. 19). Philadelphia School District Announces Asbestos Plan Same Day Pratt Early Childhood Center to be Closed to Deal with Issue. Retrieved from:
  2. The Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Asbestos and School Buildings. Retrieved from: