Philadelphia Schools Are Rife With Asbestos. Now the Teachers Union Is Suing.

By Keya Vakil

January 22, 2020

In recent weeks, six schools have closed temporarily after testing positive for airborne asbestos, which can cause fatal illnesses such as mesothelioma and lung cancer.

Lea DiRusso taught thousands of students during her 28 years as an educator with the Philadelphia School District (PSD) and had no plans to retire anytime soon. But that changed in August 2019, when she was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a fatal cancer of the lungs and abdomen most often caused by exposure to asbestos.

DiRusso’s story, which was featured on Good Morning America last November, helped propel the issue of asbestos in Philadelphia area schools into the national spotlight. A year earlier, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an investigative series on the school district’s asbestos problem, which found “alarmingly high amounts of asbestos fibers on floors in gyms, cafeterias, hallways, classrooms, and auditoriums.”

Now, the city’s teacher’s union is taking legal action. 

On Monday, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) filed a lawsuit against PSD over the district’s handling of asbestos, lead, and mold issues that have led to the closure of six city schools since October.

The teachers’ union claims the district has put the safety of teachers, staff, and students in jeopardy by falling short of its own safety standards and failing to appropriately test for and remediate asbestos.

“The PSD has failed woefully in preventing asbestos hazards from deteriorating conditions at its schools and is thereby endangering the health and safety of the teachers and staff who work in those schools and the students who attend them,” the 45-page lawsuit states. 

The complaint asks a judge to allow inspectors hired by the union to test for asbestos hazards alongside district officials. It also asks the Court to approve a jointly developed “best practices” for conducting inspections and remediation; seeks better transparency and communication from the PSD regarding testing and remediation; and requests the adoption of regular school cleaning practices. 

The filing comes a month after Laura H. Carnell Elementary School and Alexander K. McClure Elementary School were forced to close due to asbestos contamination. The district remediated asbestos at both schools and re-opened them, but McClure closed again on Jan. 17 after a new round of testing found high levels of airborne asbestos were still present. 

More than 80 percent of the district’s 214 schools contain asbestos somewhere inside the building, but asbestos is only considered a health risk once it’s airborne. Exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can cause fatal illnesses, including mesothelioma and lung cancer. 

The district’s failure to prevent exposure to airborne asbestos has alarmed parents and teachers. 

“It is extremely frustrating that the District continues to fail our children,” Antoine Little, a Thomas M. Peirce Elementary School parent, said in a statement. “This lawsuit is about making sure that my children and their teachers—and every child and every teacher—have safe, healthy learning environments. Enough is enough.”

Beyond the health risks, teachers also pointed out the potential academic consequences associated with the asbestos exposure.

“My students should not have to be afraid of what they are breathing in their classroom. How can they learn when they are afraid?” Carnell educator Tina Asman said in a statement. 

The district, which is responsible for 125,000 K-12 students and has roughly 13,000 employees, insists it’s committed to ensuring the safety of its students.

“This lawsuit is about making sure that my children and their teachers—and every child and every teacher—have safe, healthy learning environments. Enough is enough.”

“All of our students and staff members deserve that we stay 100% focused on our efforts to improve environmental conditions in schools,” Megan Lello, a PSD spokeswoman told COURIER via email. 

Lello said the district had also proposed a “processes and protocols document” to the union in November, but Jerry Roseman, an environmental expert with the union, told WHYY he didn’t know what document the district was referring to. 

As of press time, a PFT spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment regarding the document. 

The lawsuit marks the latest attempt by the union to push district officials and lawmakers to improve school conditions for the city’s students and teachers.

In March 2019, the PFT launched the Fund Our Facilities Coalition to advocate for more funding to improve the city’s aging school buildings. The average PSD building is approximately 70 years old, exceeding the national average school age by 20 years. The coalition of lawmakers, labor groups, and community organizations has called for the district to spend $170 million to remediate every school to ensure their safety and cleanliness. 

School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. estimated it would take $150 million over the span of five years to address the district’s known lead and asbestos issues, but admitted it could not raise that money on its own and would need city or state funding. A bill that would have funneled $85 million to repair public school buildings was introduced last year, though it gained little traction. 

The state has made some efforts to alleviate the issues facing the school district, pledging $12 million over the last two years to address asbestos and lead paint hazards in the city’s schools. But that’s not enough for the union, which continues to demand more funding. 

The lawsuit’s filing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was intentional, and served as a way to highlight the inequities being suffered by PSD’s students, said PFT president Jerry Jordan during a press conference at the union’s headquarters this week. More than 85 percent of the district’s student population are students of color, and nearly 100 percent are economically disadvantaged, according to district data.

“Our society has let far too much of Dr. King’s mission go unrealized,” Jordan said. “These are conditions that would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district.”


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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