Philadelphia Teachers Union Files Lawsuit Over Asbestos Contamination in Schools

A teachers’ union in Philadelphia is seeking an injunction against the school district to address widespread asbestos contamination problems that could potentially pose a risk to both students and staff. The complaint was filed against the School District of Philadelphia and its superintendent in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on January 20, by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, its president, the American Federation of Teachers and other union groups. The lawsuit comes on the heels of the School District of Philadelphia being forced to close down six schools this school year due to concerns about asbestos contamination.

What Should We Know About Asbestos?

Asbestos is a known human carcinogen, a cancer-causing material composed of thin, needle-like fibers that is found naturally in rock and soil. Before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began regulating the use of asbestos in the 1970’s, due to concerns about the link between asbestos exposure and mesothelioma, asbestos was widely used in manufacturing throughout the 20th century and could be found in thousands of commercial and industrial products, including cement, floor tiles, roofing materials, automobile brake pads, siding shingles, paint and patching compounds, and more. Most products today do not contain asbestos. However, because asbestos is strong, flexible, durable and non-flammable, the material was used in many types of building products and insulation materials in older homes, schools and other buildings. If these asbestos-containing materials remain and are disturbed, asbestos dust or fibers could become airborne and expose anyone nearby to a risk of mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases.

PSD Accused of Putting Students, Teachers at Risk

The teachers’ union lawsuit seeks mandatory injunctive relief that would require the School District of Philadelphia to properly monitor for and remove any asbestos in school buildings throughout the district that threatens the health of students and staff. “Recent events make undeniably clear that the Philadelphia School District (“PSD” or “District”) has allowed asbestos hazards at Philadelphia public schools to remain in public school buildings without proper testing and remediation to the point that it is endangering the health and safety of the teachers and staff, represented by the PFT, who work in those buildings as well as the students who attend those schools,” the lawsuit states.

The School District of Philadelphia is comprised of 18,000 employees and 202,000 students at more than 200 public schools, and six of those schools have already been shut down during this school year after it was discovered that the buildings could be contaminated with asbestos. The most recent closings affected the Laura H. Carnell School and the Alexander K. McClure School, which were forced to shut down in late December. Both schools were reopened this month, but additional testing found that the McClure school still contained high levels of airborne asbestos fibers, and the school was forced to close just two days after being reopened.

PSD “Failed to Comply with its Own Standards”

“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.” The complaint also accuses the district of mishandling inspections and asbestos removal efforts and trying to keep the teachers’ union from getting involved or accessing information about the district’s testing and removal procedures for asbestos contamination.

“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.” By neglecting its responsibilities in complying with asbestos remediation and testing requirements, the school district is accused of failing to “provide learning and working environments free from asbestos contamination.”

Injunction Calls for Regular Asbestos Inspection, Testing

The situations at the Carnell and McClure schools demonstrate the school district’s failure to comply with proper health and safety protocols, the complaint states. In order to better protect the health and safety of PSD students and staff, the injunction would require the Philadelphia School District to regularly and thoroughly inspect schools it knows or should have known contain environmental hazards, such as asbestos contamination. It would also require the school district to work with the teachers’ union to develop a court-approved plan for asbestos testing and remediation. Per the injunction, the teachers’ union would also have the right to be involved in all asbestos inspections or testing and would have immediate access to the test results.