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Asbestos in Philadelphia schools: What we know

School District of Philadelphia checking more buildings for damaged asbestos
School District of Philadelphia checking more buildings for damaged asbestos 02:12

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The average building in the School District of Philadelphia is over 70 years old and asbestos was used as a building material in many of them.

As the district inspected schools in search of damaged asbestos, it closed six school buildings in the 2022-23 school year and hired an outside company to perform asbestos inspections to catch up.

State lawmakers are asking for $5 billion over the next five years to address what they're calling a "facilities crisis" in the district. That money would be used to remediate asbestos and lead-based paint, as well as address a lack of air conditioning.

The discoveries of damaged asbestos in school buildings have led to students going to school online or relocating to a new school building as the district works on remediation plans.

At least one of the closed schools, Frankford High School, will not be ready to reopen next year. Officials said there are 16 buildings in the district that need to be inspected by August, meaning more school closures are possible.

Superintendent Tony Watlington presented his five-year plan to the Board of Education earlier this month and in a recent interview spoke about the conditions of school buildings.

Here's a recap of what we know about this ongoing issue.

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is an insulation that was used for construction in older buildings.

When it gets damaged and flakes get into the air, those particles can cause lung damage if inhaled.

"Friable" asbestos refers to materials that can easily crumble into a powder that could be inhaled. "Non-friable" asbestos means products are tightly bound and cannot be inhaled.

Inhaling asbestos particles can also lead to a rare kind of cancer called mesothelioma. However, research shows, even with prolonged exposure, only 2% to 10% of people develop the disease after exposure.

Symptoms can take 20 to 60 years to show up, according to health experts. 

Asbestos can be in remote locations. It's usually only dangerous when it's flaking in areas that are heavily used. 

What happens when a school closes due to damaged asbestos?

When a school cannot stay open due to damaged asbestos, the district has at times moved students to virtual learning, and in some cases students have been able to learn in-person at a different school.

In a recent interview before he presented his 5-year plan to the board, Watlington said the district lacked alternative sites where students could be relocated for in-person learning.

"We don't have shovel-ready swing spaces across the district where we could quickly move students to," Watlington said. 

Referring to the closure of Frankford High School next year, he said: "It's not ideal for a school that size to be ... in a virtual learning space over the long term. We're going to continue to do the best we can with the resources we have."  

Where has asbestos been found in Philadelphia schools?

Asbestos has been found in six school buildings. In some, it was in plaster used in walls or ceilings, while in others, asbestos was found around the boiler room.

The Philadelphia City Controller's office has a map on its website showing almost 2,400 asbestos remediation projects that have been completed at city schools since 2016. The map is searchable via school name and whether the project was major, minor or incidental.

Here are the six Philadelphia schools where asbestos was found.

When was asbestos found at Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter?

The district said it found damaged asbestos at the school after an inspection on March 13, 2023.

The damaged asbestos was found in the school's auditorium and the school reopened March 16 with negative-pressure air to avoid asbestos particles from circulating in the building.

When was asbestos found at Building 21?

Asbestos was first reported on March 2, 2023, after it was found in damaged plaster in the auditorium balcony. The building was closed for two months while remediation work was completed.

But the reopening on May 2, 2023, was short-lived: the school shut down again on May 4 due to water damage.

The school reopened again on May 9.

During the closure, some students learned virtually while others took classes at Strawberry Mansion High School.

When was asbestos found at Frankford High School?

Frankford High School will remain closed through next year because of asbestos damage, the district said in a letter to the school community. The district said the extent of the damage was "unexpected."

The building is more than 100 years old.

Original tests in the 1990s showed no asbestos detected, but after asbestos was found in two other schools dating back to the same era, Building 21 and Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School, the district retested and found that certain plaster walls and ceilings do, in fact, contain asbestos.

The school district said it's searching for a new facility where Frankford students can learn in person during the next school year.

When was asbestos found at Mitchell Elementary?

Mitchell, built in 1916, is one of the oldest buildings in the district. While records from the 1990s marked the building's plaster as not containing asbestos, those records were reviewed and found to be "no longer consistent with current sampling protocol," Principal Stephanie Andrewlevich wrote in a letter to parents.

Students were later relocated to McMichael Elementary in West Philadelphia after a period of virtual learning. Mitchell's building remained closed for the rest of the 2022-23 school year, but it will be back open in time for the upcoming school year.

When was asbestos found at C.W. Henry Elementary School?

Damaged asbestos was reported at C.W. Henry Elementary School in West Mount Airy on April 23, 2023. 

An inspection showed there was damaged asbestos above the ceiling tiles, which could be circulated through the air vents.

Remediation work was completed and the building reopened Monday, May 8, 2023.

When was asbestos found at Universal Vare Charter School?

Damaged asbestos was found the week of May 4, 2023, according to a letter sent to parents of Universal Vare Charter School students.

The school is closed for the remainder of the 2022-23 school year and was the sixth to close this year.

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