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Asbestos Problems In Philadelphia Schools Results in Lawsuit By Teachers Union

A union representing Philadelphia school teachers is seeking an injunction on the school district to address widespread asbestos problems, indicating that the district should be required to properly monitor for, and remove, asbestos that may threaten both students and staff.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, it’s president, Jerry Jordan, the AFL-CIO and other union groups filed a complaint (PDF) in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on January 20, against the School District of Philadelphia (PSD) and its superintendent, William R. Hite, Jr.

The lawsuit seeks mandatory injunctive relief, which would require the school district to live up to legal obligations to adequately test for, and remove, asbestos from school buildings throughout the district. The plaintiffs say the district can meet that bar by being forced to adopt accepted “best practices” for inspections and public reporting of asbestos exposure.

The complaint comes after the district, which is comprised of 125,000 students and 13,000 employees, has been forced to shut down six schools this school year due to the risks of asbestos exposure.

“The District has acknowledged that its schools’ conditions are hazardous and has developed District-wide health and safety standards applicable to asbestos testing and remediation,” the lawsuit states. However, PSD has failed to comply with its own standards despite years of complaints from the Union as well as teachers, staff, and students who occupy District buildings.”

Most recently, the Laura H. Carnell School and the Alexander K. McClure School were closed in late December due to the discovery of asbestos contamination. Carnell was reopened on January 13, and McClure was reopened on January 15, however, additional testing revealed McClure to still contain high levels of airborne asbestos fibers, forcing it to close just two days later, on January 17. It remains closed as of the filing of the lawsuit.

The teachers’ union says the district has bungled inspections and removal, and has fought to keep the union from being involved or having access to information about its testing and removal procedures.

“The District must abide by its promises to the Union to follow the most appropriate remediation and testing procedures and processes to ensure the safety of teachers, staff and students,” the lawsuit states. “Unfortunately, the District has refused to consistently follow its own commitments to the Union to follow best practices with respect to asbestos remediation and testing.”

The injunction would force the school district to conduct periodic and systematic inspections of all schools the district knows or should have known to have environmental hazards. It also would require the teachers’ union to be involved in all asbestos inspections or testing, and would give the union immediate access to the results. The district would also be required to work with the union to develop a court-approved plan for testing and remediation.

District officials say they have complied with the necessary laws and are reviewing the complaint.

Asbestos Concerns

Asbestos was widely used in American commercial product manufacturing throughout the 20th century and was embedded in thousands of products before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began passing regulations on asbestos in the 1970’s when research linked asbestos exposure to mesothelioma.

Exposure to asbestos fibers has been linked to a number of forms of respiratory illnesses and cancer, such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

Currently, asbestos is banned for use in corrugated paper, roll board, commercial paper, and specialty paper, flooring felt and new commercial uses that begin after August 25, 1989. However, even though the fibrous material is toxic even in small amounts, it is still in use in some industries. It is frequently used in automobile brake pads and clutches, vinyl tiles and roofing materials.

Although asbestos has been banned in more than 60 countries, and is the number one cause of work-related deaths in the world, the United States still continues to import and use the cancer-causing material in every day products, despite recognizing its potential dangers more than 40 years ago.

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