After a Philadelphia teacher developed mesothelioma, a form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) took a stand. The organization created a plan — which could take 5 years and cost $100 Million — to remove asbestos and lead from over 175 local schools.

In Philadelphia, It’s Not Rare to Find Asbestos in School Buildings

Asbestos was commonly used until the 1980s because of its ability to protect against fire, water, sound, and chemicals. During this time, its health risks were not widely known. Before bans on asbestos began to take place, it was frequently used in the construction of homes and buildings.

Since many buildings in older cities like Philadelphia were constructed hundreds of years ago, asbestos lingers in schools across the country.

Philadelphia’s own Penn Medicine notes the possible increased risk of asbestos exposure in schools:

“Teachers, students, and staff in older school buildings may also be at risk due to asbestos materials in ceilings, flooring, and tiles.”

If left undisturbed, asbestos is usually harmless, but when disturbed, it can become extremely dangerous — even deadly.

Construction projects or damage to pipes or tiles that occurs naturally over time can cause asbestos particles to be released into the air. When these asbestos fibers are breathed in, they become permanently lodged in the lungs.

Over time, asbestos fibers in the lungs can cause serious diseases such as:

What’s worse, the harmful effects of asbestos exposure may not show up for at least 20 years after exposure, putting students and teachers at risk without their knowledge.

“This stuff that’s happening to them right now may not show up until they’re married,” said Pat Eiding, president of the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia. “It may not show up for 15 or 20 years. We have to stop it now.”

While a name was not released, officials said the teacher who was diagnosed with mesothelioma worked at George W. Nebinger Elementary and Meredith Elementary. Both schools have been confirmed to contain asbestos.

The school district says that it checks for asbestos in school buildings every six months. However, it also admits to a backlog of inspections due to limited budgets.

The PFT Has a Plan to Eliminate Asbestos Exposure in Schools

After learning about the Philadelphia teacher’s mesothelioma diagnosis, the PFT formed a coalition called “Fund Our Facilities.”

The coalition, made up of politicians, union leaders, and community groups, is calling for the city to take long-overdue action.

“The students and educators are literally risking death when they go to school,” the PFT president said. “That is a shocking, shocking thing.”

To achieve its goal of eliminating asbestos in schools, Fund Our Facilities has a cleanup plan for all city schools.

The $100 Million plan includes:

  • Assessing exactly where asbestos in school buildings exists
  • Identifying, stabilizing, and cleaning high-risk areas
  • Removing all asbestos in schools

Reports show that between 1999-2017, about 50,000 people in the U.S. died from mesothelioma. Philadelphia has the third-highest rate of asbestos exposure in the country — a fact the PFT is no longer willing to take lightly.

The School District Is Determined to Protect Students and Teachers from Asbestos Exposure in Schools

The Philadelphia School District has shown a willingness to work with the PFT to come up with a solution. A joint approach to address environmental conditions, like asbestos in schools, is underway. Both groups seem to agree that it is high time to address this serious issue.

Jerry Roseman, an environmental scientist for the PFT, states, “We have 130,000 or so students. You have another 20,000 employees, you have parents, siblings, and others walking into schools.”

With the lives of a quarter of a million people on the line, the PFT will stop at nothing to end the potentially fatal exposure to asbestos in Philadelphia schools.

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Laura WrightWritten by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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  1. CBS Philly (2019, September 18). “Philadelphia Federation Of Teachers Proposes $100 Million Cleanup Of Asbestos, Mold And Lead In More Than 175 Schools.” Retrieved October 25, 2019, from

  2. Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center. (n.d.). “Exposure to Asbestos.” Retrieved October 25, 2019, from

  3. WHYY (2019, September 11). “Did asbestos in a Philly school cause a teacher to get cancer? It’s complicated.” Retrieved October 25, 2019, from

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