My name is Josh Meyer. My daughter attends Meredith elementary. I was devastated to learn that one of our teachers was diagnosed with mesothelioma. I am also a radiation oncologist who treats mesothelioma and lung cancer patients.
Our teacher’s diagnosis has shined a light on the risk of asbestos exposure in our schools. To be clear, mesothelioma is not the only risk from asbestos exposure, it’s just the one with the most direct link. Asbestos exposure can cause a number of other cancers, including cancers of the lung, throat, ovary, colon and stomach. Asbestos exposure also places you at risk for other lung diseases that can dramatically impact your breathing and quality of life, even if you are lucky enough to not get cancer.
It is easy to see how this asbestos exposure problem has not been addressed. It can take 10-40 years for the exposure to manifest as mesothelioma or other diseases. With other more immediate concerns, the risk can feel somewhat abstract, especially when our kids don’t look any different coming home from school. But, when I meet people who can’t breathe, who are coughing up blood, whose lives have been cut short, this is 100% real. I treated a Philadelphia firefighter who spent his career rescuing victims from burning asbestos-laden buildings. By the time I met him, he had difficulty taking more than a few steps because the tumor had frozen large sections of his lungs, unable to move air in and out. His collar bone was invaded by the tumor, causing him severe pain that could not be controlled by the strongest medications. This big, strong, proud man could hardly get into the treatment position without crying.
Mesothelioma is one of the worst cancers. Less than 10% of patients survive 5 years from their diagnosis. There are few treatments worth giving. Surgery is rarely an option. Aggressive radiation and chemotherapy may slow the cancer down a bit, but cause their own severe side effects – exhaustion, nausea, vomiting – and ultimately do not provide a cure.
Vulnerable children are being exposed to these risks in their schools. But the documented risks to our teachers are even greater than to the kids. Still worse is the risk to the environmental staff, who clean up asbestos dust. It is unacceptable that the city would allow exposure to this deadly substance to anyone who sets foot in a school.
The most common occupational exposure of asbestos for women is in educational services. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety listed elementary and middle school teaching as one of 3 occupations putting women at high risk of developing mesothelioma. We already ask so much of our teachers. We cannot ask them to risk their lives.
Asbestos in the Philadelphia public school system cannot be ignored. We are calling for an urgent and dramatic response from the Board of Education and all relevant decision makers in order to ensure healthy and safe schools for all students, teachers and staff.