University of Pennsylvania to Launch Case Study for Asbestos-Exposed Community

Factory machinery

When an asbestos factory shuts its doors for good, the fight is only halfway over.

Workers may no longer face daily exposure, but asbestos often lingers in the community. Former employees and their spouses become ill, and children grow up in a town where the toxin persists in the air and the soil.

Years pass and outrage fades. Once the media trucks leave, residents are left to deal with their town’s legacy on their own.

Such was the case in Ambler, Pennsylvania – until now.

The Ambler Asbestos Industry

The Keasbey and Mattison asbestos factory moved from Philadelphia to Amber in 1881. It produced construction supplies, auto parts and insulation until 1962.

The owners abandoned the facility – but not before dumping tons of asbestos waste. Now known as the BoRit Asbestos Site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named the waste site a National Priorities List Superfund Site in 1984. Until that point, area residents used part of the area as a playground and public park.

Cleanup at the Ambler site is now complete. However, in light of the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases, the community’s health risk is still unacceptably high.

Long-Lasting Effects

The Pennsylvania Department of Health estimates that West and South Ambler have higher mesothelioma incidence rates than the rest of the state. The Environmental Working Group also indicates that from 1971 to 2001, Montgomery County had the state’s fourth highest mortality rate for asbestos-related diseases.

“We know there is an existing health risk,” said Frances K. Barg, associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania.

“But that’s just one piece of the problem.”

NIH-Funded Program Helps Ambler Residents Move Forward

In November 2012, the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institute of Health’s Science Education Partnership Award.

The department will use funds to develop a collection of documents, data, interviews and photographs for the local residents and nationwide researchers. They plan to make the case study publicly accessible so that policy makers, health care and public health professionals and business executives can learn from the town’s past.

They also hope to target a demographic that is often overlooked in mesothelioma studies.

Many of the factory’s former employees were lower-income African-American and Italian-American immigrants. (This stands in contrast to the typical Caucasian mesothelioma patient).

Interviewers will help these workers tell their unique stories – stories that may help future residents better understand the town’s successes and dangers. Researchers also hope to identify any unique social and cultural effects of the exposure.

“Our hope is that this program will help residents to better understand the history of their community through the eyes of those who lived here,” said Barg, who will also serve as the director of the project. “We hope we’ll be able to contribute multiple points of view to the recovery effort.”

Perhaps other recovering towns can learn from Ambler’s recovery journey as they pursue their own remedial efforts.

With residents’ lives still on the line, communities can use every resource that they can get.


After graduating with an English degree from Southeastern University in 2010, Faith Franz came on board as a health and wellness writer for The Mesothelioma Center.

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