2 Philly schools closed because of asbestos

Tim Jimenez
October 01, 2019 - 7:06 am
The Ben Franklin HS and Science Leadership Academy campus on North Broad is closed because of asbestos.

Tim Jimenez/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The building at the corner of Broad and Spring Garden streets that houses both Ben Franklin High School and Science Leadershp Academy is shut down Tuesday because of asbestos in the building. The schools are expected to be closed at least through Wednesday.

Parts of the bullding have been under construction to fully integrate Science Leadership Academy into the home of Ben Franklin High.

Superintendent William Hite said he didn't want to take any chances, and ordered a two-day closure of both schools after initial testing of damaged insulation turned up asbestos.

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"There were subsequent tests done within the boiler room that found high concentrations of asbestos," Hite said. "We also tested outside of the boiler room and outside of a contained area that is still being worked on in the commons area. And both of those areas contained asbestos."

Now work crews need to clean up the areas and keep testing the air to make sure the space is safe for students again. 

"We're going to test and abate while the school is closed for these two days," Hite said. "And then we hope to have students return on Thursday. But we're going to meet Wednesday afternoon to determine if young people can come back."

Hite says there is no evidence that any of the asbestos is airborne in the building, and that the two areas where asbestos was found have been sealed off. But he says he didn't want to take any chances, especially after a teacher at Meredith Elementary last month was reported to have been diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Construction delays had already led to the start of the school year being pushed back by three days.

The teachers union released a statement saying it’s on the same page as the School District of Philadelphia. Both sides are monitoring the situation. Hite says district operations representatives will meet Wednesday afternoon to decide whether it's safe for students to return on Thursday. Hite says he'll look into whether students will have to make up for the two days.

Asbestos-related illnesses  

Sixty countries ban the use of asbestos, but the United States is not one of them. 

"And we know that for those countries that banned it, let's say 30 years ago, asbestos-related disease has gone down considerably," said Dr. Arthur Frank, professor of public health and medicine at Drexel University

Frank has been doing asbestos-related work for more than 50 years, and he says in the past asbestos has been used in thousands of products.

"Clearly it was used in construction materials. It was widely used in places like steel mills, and ship yards were a major source of exposure," he said. 

And Frank says there were numerous consumer products made with asbestos, including ironing board covers and toasters. And some cosmetics sold to this day contain asbestos-contaminated talc.

Most people have small amounts of asbestos in their lungs, he said, but not everyone exposed to asbestos gets sick.

"It is a material that people, on the one hand, should be concerned about, but also not concerned — that, just because it's present, you are going to be exposed. And if you are you are exposed, the likelihood of getting a disease is probably not very great for any individual. But among 330 million Americans, somebody is going to get the disease because of its presence out there."

He says once an asbestos fiber enters your body, it could stay in your body for the rest of your life and if you develop an illness, it won't surface until 10, 20 or even 30 years after exposure.

The EPA has been taking steps to protect the public from the adverse health effects of asbestos under the Toxic Substances Control Act. In 1989, the agency partially banned the manufacture, import, processing and distribution of some products made with asbestos.

Last April, the EPA issued a "Final Rule" to keep asbestos products from returning to commerce without an evaulation from the EPA.

Currently the EPA is reviewing ongoing uses of asbestos and says it will take action if unreasonable risks are found.

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KYW Newsradio's Mike Denardo and John McDevitt contributed to this report.