Asbestos in Schools: Philadelphia teacher plans to sue district after cancer diagnosis, speaks exclusively to GMA

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Friday, November 22, 2019
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A teacher in Philadelphia speaks out about the danger of asbestos in schools as she battles cancer.

PHILADELPHIA -- Teacher Lea DiRusso plans to file a lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of cancer primarily caused by asbestos exposure.

The 51-year-old mother of two spoke about her diagnosis and lawsuit in an ABC News exclusive on Thursday's edition of "Good Morning America."

During her 30 years with the school district, DiRusso says she worked at two buildings with documented asbestos problems.

Most recently she worked at Meredith Elementary School in the Queen Village neighborhood.

DiRusso had to give up teaching because of her diagnosis.

"I didn't know it was my last year. I just feel like I didn't get to end it the way I wanted to end it," DiRusso said.

It was in August when she was diagnosed with the aggressive and deadly cancer of the lungs and abdomen.

Major health organizations like the World Health Organization, Mayo Clinic, and American Cancer Society say it is almost always caused by long-term exposure to asbestos.

"I don't have a future anymore. I planned on spending my golden years with someone I just married a few years ago and that doesn't look like that's going to happen," DiRusso said. "I feel like I have tomorrow, that's about it."

Once considered a miracle material, asbestos was widely used as insulation and soundproofing. Experts say, covered and undisturbed, it's not dangerous. But years of wear and tear can cause it to become airborne.

Breathing and ingesting its needle-like fibers over time can cause a whole host of cancers.

Government agencies including the EPA say there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

"If she was exposed to elevated levels of asbestos in the two buildings in which she taught, it would be a causative factor in her developing her mesothelioma," Dr. Arthur L. Frank of Drexel University said.

Earlier this year, the district addressed asbestos concerns inside the school.

In September, 6abc Action News obtained photos from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Union Health Fund which they claim show asbestos exposure inside Meredith Elementary.

"I was completely unaware, as are my colleagues and staff and students, that there even was asbestos present in the school building. I did not know the steam pipes behind me were wrapped in asbestos and I touched them. I hung clotheslines to hang student work," DiRusso said. "I used it because I was creating a home for my students."

DiRusso knows of no other place she was exposed to asbestos.

She says she is very concerned about the teachers and students still going to the classrooms.

"If I make a classroom safe for my students, I expect the school district to make all schools safe for students and staff," DiRusso said.

Environmental scientist Jerry Roseman has been called in by the district and teachers' union to investigate asbestos complaints in Philadelphia schools.

"I'm often seeing damaged, exposed, and available asbestos that are in areas where there are children and staff. I kind of have a searing image in my mind of a child who has his arm around an asbestos covered pipe in a gym and he's sucking his thumb. That's a problem," Roseman said.

Roseman says, oftentimes, he sees exposed asbestos that has present for months or even years.

"It's not right. It's really not right. Asbestos is probably our catastrophic hazard. If you get sick from an asbestos exposure, you are very sick. The only good news is in these situations for people not in direct contact, the level of risk is small," Roseman said.

ABC News spoke to some worried public school parents who have faced some tough decisions.

"It's like Dante's Inferno. It's like every day you are making this horrible decision over and over," parent David Masur said.

"I trust that every day my kid goes to school he's going to be safe. This is the worst thing that happened to me because..." parent Gilberto Gonzalez said, fighting back tears.

Charmaine Mitchell pulled her son out of a local elementary school in early November.

"My frustration came in when I realized, all this time, (my son) Alan has white stuff on his pants," Mitchell said.

DiRusso had a message for the parents.h

"You need to speak up for your child and make sure every day they go to a safe space, and that every child in every school, not just the affluent ones, are worth it," DiRusso said.

The School District of Philadelphia tells ABC News:

"The District realizes that it has a serious challenge with asbestos in our more than 200 school buildings. Our goal is to have the best notification system possible, to have the most effective response possible and to eventually remove as much asbestos from our schools as possible."

But for DiRusso, cleanup may have come years and years too late. She started the process of suing the school district.

She vows to fight - for her life and the schools.

ABC's T.J. Holmes asked DiRusso if she would go back to teach in a Philadelphia school if she gets the chance.

"I don't know. I don't know if I would feel comfortable knowing that I'm going to a place where someone didn't tell me that there was a toxic substance and that it was in my midst, two feet from my head, every day, all day," said DiRusso.

Earlier this week, superintendent, Dr. William Hite ordered a visual inspection of every building by December 20.

"Everything we've done hasn't been enough. We have made some mistakes," Hite said.

A rally is scheduled outside School District headquarters Thursday afternoon to demand more attention to the asbestos in Philadelphia schools.