Philly School District blocks a federal study after health risks are exposed

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

Pervasive mold, dampness and water damage are found in initial review of 36 schools. 

The crisis-wracked School District of Philadelphia has quietly abandoned a federal agency’s plans for further study of environmental-health risks in its aging school buildings. An initial review found pervasive dampness, mold or water damage — conditions that may aggravate asthma and other respiratory ailments — but the District has refused to make the complete findings public.

The limited results obtained by City Paper raise questions, including at Bryant Elementary School in West Philadelphia, where a visual inspection conducted during the first study found signs of water-related deterioration in 95.2 percent of the school’s rooms. Bryant was where a sixth-grade girl, Laporshia Massey, suffered what her father described as an asthma attack last fall when no nurse was on duty, and died later that day. 

In fact, Bryant had the greatest prevalence of such conditions among 36 schools described in a summary dated March 20, 2012. Of that group of school buildings, more than 60 percent— 23 schools — had dampness, mold or water damage in more than a third of their rooms. A far smaller number of rooms were cited only for mold or mold odor. 

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) Health and Welfare Fund believes that the District shut down a second study because it does not want to reveal the poor state of city school buildings.

“They realized that the study shows that they have a flaw in their system that allows these conditions to continue,” says Arthur Steinberg, who heads the Health and Welfare Fund. The District, he says, probably “didn’t like where it was leading” even though it was designed to “provide critical information on health conditions for kids, for staff members.” 

The initial study was carried out by the District in partnership with the Health and Welfare Fund and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), a federal agency that is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What the Health and Welfare Fund describes as the study’s second phase would have investigated 50 elementary schools in depth, surveying the health of staffers and taking environmental samples from the buildings. 

For its part, the District, which is run by the state-controlled School Reform Commission (SRC), denies that it shut down an ongoing project; instead, a spokesman says that a first project with NIOSH was completed, and the District decided not to participate in a second study because of its severe budget crisis, which continues to worsen and has led to widespread layoffs.

“It’s a separate research project that NIOSH wanted to do in the District, and we did turn that down because we are in the midst of very diminished resources,” says District spokesperson Fernando Gallard.

The Health and Welfare Fund says that does not make sense since the second study’s costs would have been paid by NIOSH. But the District says the time required of their bare-bones administrative staff would have been too onerous. NIOSH declined an interview request, writing in an email only that the agency is “currently working with those involved on possible next steps for this work.” 

At the time, Laporshia’s death prompted widespread criticism of Gov. Tom Corbett’s deep cuts to education spending and drew attention to the short-staffing of school nurses. 

After Jerry Roseman, an environmental health expert who has consulted for the Health and Welfare Fund for nearly 30 years, read about the 12-year-old’s death, he wanted to know whether the building conditions at Bryant might have aggravated her asthma or pose a risk to others at the school.

“We read your article and it was really disturbing,” says Roseman, referring to the Oct. 10, 2013 City Paper story. But despite the NIOSH data, Roseman says, “the District’s environmental people indicated that they were unfamiliar with existing problems with the building.” The District denies this.

An inspection of Bryant took place on Oct. 16, six days after Laporshia’s death was first reported. The District insists that they arranged the visit. But Roseman says that the District initially resisted visiting Bryant and the Health and Welfare Fund took the lead. He notes that the inspection took place three weeks after Laporshia’s death and only after it had been publicly reported. 

“We went out and we saw it,” says Roseman. “It was egregious. Crazy.”

The District undertook repairs the following weekend, according to Roseman. Some problems observed by Roseman, however, were not specifically listed in copies of the District’s internal Indoor Environmental Quality “Dashboard,” a continuously updated survey of needed building repairs, which City Paper obtained from the Health and Welfare Fund. That includes information about what Roseman and a Bryant teacher say was Laporshia’s classroom: room 303. 

Photos of room 303 taken on Oct. 16, according to Roseman’s notes, showed “extensive, long-term damage and deterioration from persistent dampness and moisture,” damaged paint that is likely lead-based, and widespread dust and debris. 

“This kind of material is a concern not just because of the presence of lead, but because of its potential respiratory hazard — including its asthma trigger ‘potential’ — to occupants,” according to Roseman’s notes from the inspection, which he says were submitted to the District. 

The District says that such concerns were covered by a Dashboard entry calling for “a paint and plaster survey” and stabilization “throughout the building.” The District also said that 2011 NIOSH data showed that room 303 “had minimal paint and plaster damage compared to other areas.”

And other areas do appear to be damaged. The ceiling of the third floor hallway, Roseman noted, had “large sections of damaged and/or missing plaster [that] indicate the long-term persistent moisture and water intrusion into this area and are quite alarming.” 

Later on in October and then again in early December, Roseman carried out further inspections and found at least four new or recurring roof leaks in the building. He also observed “minor damage to already completed repair work” in the third-floor girls’ bathroom and cafeteria. Repairs were also creating “significant excess dust.” 

The District says that Roseman only captured a “work in progress.”

But Roseman conducted another inspection on March 18, 2014, and according to his report, “the majority of the deficient building conditions previously identified at Bryant E.S. and reportedly present for years, are still present and had not been fully and/or properly addressed.” 

“The wall — the paint’s peeling off, there’s some holes,” says one teacher at the school, who requested anonymity, describing the building’s current state. “There’s a big leak in one of the stairwells, and water was coming down when it was raining.” 

No one can say for sure how, or if, Bryant’s conditions may have affected Laporshia Massey in the weeks leading up to her death on Sept. 25. But Roseman says that the District should take such risks more seriously.

“This stuff could easily trigger an asthma attack or make some respiratory problems worse,” he says. “You have the death of a child, a 12-year-old in a school that has conditions like this. … It requires and deserves real evaluation.”

The Health and Welfare Fund says that NIOSH had already spent a year preparing to undertake the second study, a pilot project that could have been replicated across the country, but that the District shut it down just as the survey was slated to begin.

Outside occupational-health experts contacted by City Paper all agree that it was difficult to interpret the limited NIOSH data without more information. One, consultant Hal Levin, head of the California-based Building Ecology Research Group, warned against overstating the potential harm caused by water-damaged rooms. 

Another, Dr. Jerome Paulson, a professor of Pediatrics and of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University and director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Children’s National Health System, said the water damage “certainly would indicate a need for investigation as to how this occurred and why the situation was allowed to deteriorate to the point where so many rooms are involved.”

Though many studies have found associations between dampness and mold, and adverse health outcomes, more research must be conducted to determine the precise manner in which building conditions impact health, according to Richard J. Shaughnessy, manager of the Indoor Air Program at the University of Tulsa, who is familiar with the NIOSH studies.

NIOSH, Roseman says, wanted to do just that: advance scientific research while helping the School District better understand its building conditions so that it can more efficiently fix problems.

The District’s rejection of the NIOSH project came amid a tangle with City Paper over access to the raw data collected during the first study. On Feb. 19, the paper filed a request under the state’s Right to Know law, seeking complete data from the first phase of the study. Around March 21, the Health and Welfare Fund says, the District first informed NIOSH that it had concerns about the project. On March 26, the District was granted a voluntary two-week extension by City Paper on its request. Around March 31, according to the Health and Welfare Fund, the District officially terminated the NIOSH project without explanation. On April 11, the District denied the paper’s open-records request, citing confidentiality. The paper has appealed that decision to the state’s Office of Open Records.

The School District says that it does its best to keep buildings in good repair on an incredibly tight budget. 

“The District’s current administration inherited a building stock that is antiquated, deteriorated and lacked preventive maintenance for decades,” the District said in a statement. “The current budget only allows for so much repair work. We are trying to prioritize such fixes based upon children’s environmental health and other parameters.”

The District is unquestionably in a financial crisis, aggravated by state cuts. But the District would not comment on whether the state, which has exercised control over Philadelphia schools since 2001, has any responsibility for the condition of the District’s buildings, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests for comment. 

But the Health and Welfare Fund also faults the District for mismanaging what resources it does spend by failing to repair underlying structural problems — like deteriorated pointing or leaking roofs. 

A major problem at Bryant, Roseman wrote in a December report, is that “only very limited exterior work” on the roof had been “performed, scheduled or discussed” and “no work has been addressed to exterior masonry, window systems and/or other sources of major water intrusion, leaks, moisture and dampness.”

Problems with the exterior brick pointing were first noted in May 2011, according to the District’s Dashboard, and appear “to be contributing to moisture intrusion and damage to paint and plaster.” The problem, which the District described as a “major capital project,” remains unrepaired. The District says that the repairs cannot begin until fiscal year 2015-16, and will cost more than $1 million. 

“The Bryant project was in queue with other schools that also require the same type of structural work,” according to a District statement, “that is why it has been open since 2011.”

Roseman says that the NIOSH data would have helped the District prioritize repairs and catch problems early — thus saving money. 

The Health and Welfare Fund also alleges that the District has resisted sharing data from the beginning, and that even the project’s first phase was shut down early: The District stopped collecting data on schools last summer before all the buildings were evaluated, according to Roseman, who says that the project was initiated in 2011 at his suggestion. Only 92 of more than 200 District schools were evaluated, according to an email from NIOSH to the Health and Welfare Fund. 

The District denies that the first study was shut down early, saying they went beyond an initial agreement to assess only 70 schools and now have “incorporated dampness and mold inspections into our biannual environmental health inspections of all schools.”

On April 11, the PFT and Service Employees International Union 32BJ, whose members include maintenance and custodial staff, filed a complaint — called a Health Hazard Evaluation request — with NIOSH, asking for an investigation of contaminants and poor ventilation. 

“Our members are exposed, on a daily and continuing basis, to the potential hazards associated with persistent moisture, dampness, mold,” the unions wrote to NIOSH.

The union complaint also said the buildings “present real risks and hazards — likely to an even greater degree — to schoolchildren.”

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