Ambler

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Ambler, Pennsylvania, was one of the first asbestos factory towns in America, and it remained a major source of asbestos products for almost a century. This left a legacy of illness and environmental contamination that still haunts the town, long after the asbestos factories closed.

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Ambler Asbestos Manufacturing

The story of the Ambler Asbestos brand began in 1882, when Henry Keasbey and Dr. Richard Mattison moved their patent medicine company from Philadelphia to a village 20 miles north called Wissahickon.

They chose this location because of its convenient access to spring water, limestone and the Ambler railroad station. As luck would have it, around this same time Mattison discovered how to make pipe insulation by mixing magnesium carbonate with asbestos.

Before the 1880s were over, the Keasbey & Mattison Company transformed itself into an asbestos manufacturer, and the village of Wissahickon turned into the factory town of Ambler.

An early Keasbey & Mattison print advertisement
An early Keasbey & Mattison print advertisement.

Mattison went on to make a fortune by capitalizing on as many uses of asbestos as possible. America’s first asbestos textile plant opened in Ambler in 1986, and Ambler’s factories began producing corrugated asbestos cement sheets in 1907.

Other asbestos-containing products manufactured in Ambler included shingles, millboard, tiles, artificial lumber, gloves, gasket material, brake pads and spray-on fireproofing.

After Keasbey & Mattison ran into financial trouble during the Great Depression, the company was bought by Turner & Newall in 1934, which in turn was bought by the Certainteed Corporation and Nicolet Industries in 1962.

Through all the changes in ownership, however, the Ambler Asbestos brand endured.

In the 1970s, public awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure grew, and the Environmental Protection Agency began to intervene in Ambler.

Asbestos manufacturing continued in Ambler all the way until 1987, when Nicolet Industries filed for bankruptcy protection in the face of thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits.

Mesothelioma in Ambler, Pennsylvania

In 2011, a Pennsylvania Department of Health study confirmed there is an elevated rate of asbestos-related cancer among residents of Ambler.

The researchers examined cancer diagnoses reported between 1992 and 2008, and they found the rate of mesothelioma in Ambler’s zip code is three times higher than the average rate for Pennsylvania.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer almost exclusively caused by asbestos exposure.

The study result was unsurprising, given that 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos-containing waste had been dumped in Ambler between 1930 and 1974.

For more than 40 years, debris from the factories had been dumped in piles nicknamed the “White Mountains of Ambler” because of their high-asbestos content. Children regularly played on the piles, and the wind often blew asbestos dust into the yards and homes of nearby residents.

Arial View of Ambler, Pennsylvania
Aerial view of Ambler, Pennsylvania, the asbestos textile mill and the “White Mountains of Ambler.”

The worst exposure undoubtedly occurred in Ambler’s asbestos textile plant, where workers processed raw asbestos for spinning into yarn. Pulling asbestos fibers apart created extreme concentrations of toxic dust in the air.

Work areas were not well ventilated because it would have interfered with the yarn-making process. Workers on all the other asbestos product lines suffered high levels of exposure as well. They were given no safety gear, no training and no warning about the long-term risks of inhaling asbestos.

Factory owners continued this policy of neglect even after the company’s medical officer identified an elevated cancer risk among asbestos-exposed workers in the early 1950s.

Executives chose to profit off the Ambler Asbestos brand for another 30 years, rather than preventing decades of workplace asbestos exposure and countless deaths.

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Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site

In 1986, the “White Mountains of Ambler” were renamed the Ambler Asbestos Piles and designated a Superfund site.

Abandoned factory building in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
Asbestos warning sign near an abandoned factory building in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency’s supervision, Ambler’s asbestos companies paid to have the waste piles graded, capped with a layer of soil and secured by a perimeter fence.

By 1996, trees had grown on the site, and the erosion and sedimentation controls put in place were deemed successful. The EPA removed the Ambler Asbestos Piles from its National Priorities List, but they will remain surrounded by locked gates and warning signs for the indefinite future.

BoRit Asbestos Superfund Site

The BoRit Superfund site was another asbestos dumping area used by Ambler factories from the early 1900s to the late 1960s.

For a time, part of it actually hosted a park area and a playground. Though the park was closed and fenced off in the mid-1980s, the BoRit site did not receive Superfund status until 2009.

The BoRit site gained the EPA’s attention thanks to campaigning by the Citizens for a Better Ambler Group. A land developer proposed building a high-rise on the BoRit site, which would have disturbed the asbestos-containing waste and potentially contaminated the surrounding community.

The EPA completed its initial cleanup phase of the site in 2015, but tensions still remain between people who want more development in the area and locals who want the BoRit site left undisturbed.

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Writer

Daniel King joined Asbestos.com in 2017. He comes from a military family and attended high school on an Air Force base in Japan, so he feels a close connection to veterans, military families and the many hardships they face. As an investigative writer with interests in mesothelioma research and environmental issues, he seeks to educate others about the dangers of asbestos exposure to protect them from the deadly carcinogen. Daniel holds several certificates in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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4 Cited Article Sources

  1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2019, February 7). What EPA is Doing in Ambler, Pennsylvania.
    Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/ambler/what-epa-doing-ambler-pennsylvania
  2. Reiny, S. (2015, June 24). Living in the Town Asbestos Built.
    Retrieved from: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/living-in-the-town-asbestos-built
  3. Pennsylvania Department of Health. (2011, July). Cancer Evaluation: Ambler Area, Montgomery County.
    Retrieved from: https://www.med.upenn.edu/asbestos/assets/user-content/documents/Cancer_Evaluation_July_2011.pdf
  4. University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). Asbestos in Ambler. Retrieved from: https://www.med.upenn.edu/asbestos/history.html
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Last Modified September 10, 2019

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