Published in the Center City Concerned Citizens Review, October, 2018

By Joseph Batory

A serious crime has been committed, and even it has been caused by negligence or apathy, the perpetrators are still GUILTY; they are: (1.) The Pennsylvania legislature which underfunded Philadelphia public schools for decades; (2.) The worthless School Reform Commission which had clueless “State- oversight” of the schools for more than 16 years; and, (3.) The school district’s administrations since 2000.

The evidence of this crime is enormous!  A t Philadelphia Inquirer’s investigation has found that more than half of the Philadelphia’s public elementary schools have serious environmental hazards like lead dust, mold spores and asbestos fibers.

The Inquirer’s environmental report documented more than 9,000 environmental problems across the district since September 2015. Eighty of the city’s 148 elementary schools had reports of environmental hazards such as flaking lead paint (About 90 percent of the district’s schools were built before 1978, the year the federal government outlawed residential use of lead paint), mouse droppings mold or other asthma triggers, lead-tainted water, or frayed asbestos.

Dangerously high levels of cancer-causing asbestos fibers were found on surfaces in classrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums and hallways. Hazardous levels of lead dust showed up on windowsills, floors, and shelves in classrooms. The bottom line is that children are especially vulnerable to these pollutants, which can trigger asthma, headaches, nausea, bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory problems.

School district officials have predictably been defensive about the Inquirer’s findings and stressed that they are “streamlining their record-tracking system” to get a more up-to-date picture of problems that need to be fixed.  Really? But where have this host of responsible people been for at least the last 20 years when children and teachers in Philadelphia schools have been exposed to toxins.  This has been an unconscionable travesty perpetrated on children and their families.

“With these kinds of exposures, to lead, mold, asbestos, the effects are insidious, they are cumulative, and they often don’t show up for a while, and they can be subtle,” said Jerry Roseman, director of environmental science at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “A child with lead poisoning might look like he or she has Attention Deficit Disorder or some other thing, and you might never know. The asbestos hazard would take many years to show up, not until after the kid would be out of school.”

The school district has been negligent or at best being slow to address reported hazards that can make children sick — peeling lead paint, deteriorating asbestos, mold, rodent infestations, leaking roofs and pipes.

Worse yet, the school district crews have often done maintenance work while schools are in session. And according to The Inquirer’s own independent testing and analysis of school district records, when the district has done the repairs, its in-house workers and outside contractors often create bigger problems: doing shoddy work that has to be redone or leaving behind lead dust, asbestos fibers, and other toxic materials.

There is of course no easy or “quick fix” answer to remedy this environmental disaster. A plan for remediation by the guilty parties is supposedly underway at last.  But this will not lessen the guilt. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the defunct School Reform Commission, school district administrations, and even city government are sadly the responsible parties for allowing an environmental crisis to exist in Philadelphia’s public schools.

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