Asbestos Hazards at Philadelphia School Raises Concerns

Parents and teachers of children attending a Philadelphia school voiced their concerns last week about the safety of the school and possible asbestos hazards. The Julia R. Masterman magnet school in the School District of Philadelphia received backlash about ongoing building improvements as they began their school year on August 31st.

Citizens Voice Their Concerns About Potential Asbestos Hazards

In a back-to-school welcome letter addressed to the student’s families, the school summarized efforts in reducing asbestos present throughout an 88-year-old building. The abatement project that began in June remains ongoing and raises concerns among parents for the safety of their children.

The welcome back letter states, “an AHERA 6-month periodic surveillance began on August 9, 2021, to assess asbestos materials within the building in accordance with federal standards. The periodic surveillance effort has recently been completed, [and] there will likely be asbestos abatement work arising out of this surveillance to properly manage any findings.”

The letter indicates asbestos is present on the school’s roof and elevators. There were a total of 60 addressed areas throughout the school. The elevator replacements won’t be finished until June 2022. Parents, teachers, and community supporters believe the asbestos problem is flying “under the radar in some of the poorest schools in the district.”

As the school opened for in-person learning for the first time since March 2020, a group of about 50 parents, students, and teachers protested outside the school with signs. One sign stated, “why must we pick between [Covid-19] and cancer?” Four City Council members later joined the group of concerned citizens.

Masterman Faces Crisitsicm For Handling of Asbestos Abatement

Remediation efforts addressed the areas of concern, according to the school. A third-party safety inspector had been supervising the ongoing construction projects and maintained the projects aren’t causing imminent asbestos hazards. A representative from Philidelphia’s Department of Public Health walked through the building recently, in which they did not indicate any violations were present.

The safety inspector on-site and the Department of Public Health walkthrough aimed to provide reassurances to parents and staff, but the school’s efforts were still met with doubt because of the lack of information about abatement efforts.

While the asbestos hazards appear to be under control as much as legal and regulatory obligations require, critics feel they’ve been misled about the overall handling of asbestos. 

The school indicated they had been fixing the problem since 2019, but according to a report from a third-party inspector last year, workers ended up sealing affected areas rather than removing the asbestos. It seems this method of asbestos control wasn’t recounted in the original abatement reports.

Parents and Staff Take Things Into Their Own Hands

The Masterman Home and School Association (HSA), a partnership between parents and professionals, want the district to conduct a joint inspection that includes environmental consultant and expert Jerry Roseman. With decades of experience working alongside the Philadelphia teachers union, Roseman has helped with thousands of inspections.

Roseman wants to use a more accurate method of asbestos air testing called Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). Though more expensive, the method is considered the “gold standard in the industry.” The school district uses a faster method called Phase Contrast Microscopy (PCM) testing.

The school district offered to allow Roseman to walk through the school for a visual inspection but denied the request for a more thorough inspection that would include areas above ceiling tiles. Roseman was denied the request because he does not hold an active asbestos inspection license. In this case, the formality trumps Roseman’s decades of inspection experience.

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