Located in Montgomery County, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Ambler might seem just like any other small Pennsylvania town at first glance; a place struggling with attrition after losing a lot of the industrial jobs that used to sustain it. But Ambler residents also have another struggle, having dealt with a high volume of dangerous asbestos for over a century.
A major part of Ambler’s asbestos problem started when the Keasbey and Mattison Company moved into the town in 1873. Keasbey and Mattison made various building products, such as shingles and insulation. At the time, the company’s founders were using asbestos in their products because the mineral seemed to work wonders as an insulator – and could deliver value across many industries.
A decade later, Keasbey and Mattison opened an asbestos textile plant in Ambler, and the plant proved itself instrumental in the company’s 20th century success. K&M continued to make asbestos-containing products throughout the World War II era, when, in the 1940s, demand for asbestos-containing insulation skyrocketed, due to the building of massive U.S. Navy fleets.
Separation Sheds Light on Outdated Corporate Practices
Now, we of course have the benefit of hindsight. The industrial practices routine at K&M and other likeminded companies during the late 19th century and early 20th century seem simply horrible. Workers mixed raw asbestos fibers into cement slurries, and actually beat asbestos materials to produce individual asbestos fibers – the same fibers that, when inhaled, would lead straight to mesothelioma and other asbestos-triggered diseases. Some workers brushed these stray fibers right off of their clothes. Others brought the fibers home with them, exposing their family members.
All of this led to high rates of cancer and death in Ambler, Pennsylvania and surrounding areas.
By the time the greater American public came to understand the incredible dangers of asbestos, there were mountainous piles of it lying around in Ambler. When the EPA outlawed asbestos sprays in 1973 and certain types of solid asbestos insulation in 1975, a 25-acre area called “Ambler’s White Mountains” and later, “Ambler’s Asbestos Piles,” contained 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos – burgeoning towers of deadly waste.
Over the years, as people in Ambler continued to be diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases – mesothelioma, asbestosis, and asbestos-related lung cancer – asbestos continued to contaminate public areas. In Ambler, living with and around asbestos became a way of life. Children sledded down Ambler’s White Mountains in the winter. Superfund sites were developed. Many local residents came into contact with asbestos routinely.
Because airborne asbestos fibers are so dangerous, the area – and the state as a whole – suffer from devastatingly high levels of asbestos-triggered disease and health hazards.
Government Remediation Still Leaves Clear and Present Dangers in Ambler
Although pictures of the Ambler piles in the 1970s and early 1980s show mountains of loose asbestos materials, the EPA actually worked at remediation there for 2 decades, from 1973 to 1993. In 1986, workers graded the piles and capped them with soil, put in erosion controls, and sealed off the area from public access.
But the Ambler White Mountains area wasn’t the only dangerous place in town – in 1983 and 1984, the EPA was taking samples at a site called “BoRit” – a 6-acre parcel near what is now the Wissahickon Waterfowl Preserve. That area was also covered, but it got new attention from the EPA several decades later. After concerns about possible development on the site in 2005, the EPA got involved again, conducted a re-assessment, and began a second, more comprehensive effort to contain any asbestos there. Federal workers placed a thick, heavy liner over the piles, and sealed everything in with a few feet of soil.
Because the EPA got involved, the town got what seemed like a permanent fix. By containing and sealing these sites, which took a tremendous amount of work, public planners greatly reduced risks. This is a big deal – because lesser efforts can leave people exposed to quite a bit of risk. In the case of the Ambler sites, an EPA presentation from 2007 talks about how prior to the Superfund site designation, various consulting firms had assessed the White Mountains site as “safe.”
But even the thorough superfund work doesn’t seem to have laid all of Ambler’s fears to rest. Just months ago, locals tested debris beyond the Superfund fence line. It tested positive for 60% chrysotile asbestos. Findings like this lead Pennsylvania residents to wonder if they will ever be safe from the state’s unfortunate legacy.
“I want our federal, state, and local governments to work together to make Ambler safe forever,” says Ambler resident Marilyn Amento in an August 2015 Reuters press release on the new results. Amento lost her husband Joe to mesothelioma. When Joe died, he left behind his wife, but also their 2 young children.
Mesothelioma and Pennsylvania’s Public Health: Who’s at Risk?
Ambler is not the only place in Pennsylvania where residents have to worry about asbestos exposure. In fact, the problem affects many parts of the state. Breakdowns of asbestos rates within Pennsylvania show some counties with much higher risks. One of these is Allegheny County, where the Environmental Working Group Action Fund found 107 asbestos-related deaths a year from 1999-2013. The same study found that a full 28 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have asbestos disease rates far higher than the national average – so while risks are higher in particular communities, they affect people all over Pennsylvania, wherever there’s more of a legacy of industrial asbestos.
When it comes to mesothelioma risks in Pennsylvania, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey covering 1999-2005 shows that the state is one of the “Top 6 states” with a risk factor above 20 deaths per million residents per year. Other high-risk states are:
- New Jersey
- West Virginia
These types of studies show the connection between industrial asbestos use and disease. They also show why dealing with asbestos is a very serious public health issue.
In Pennsylvania, people are dying from asbestos-triggered diseases, such as mesothelioma. Because the disease is rare and difficult to treat, victims and their families are left with few options but to fight the corporations responsible for their sicknesses in court. The goal, of course, is to obtain justice and compensation. Without this compensation, victims and their families simply can’t afford to fight the disease killing them and their loved ones.
The Wrong Approach: Pennsylvania Legislators Could Limit the Rights of Mesothelioma Victims
One might think that with such a long legacy of asbestos-triggered disease and a thorough scientific understanding of past- and present-day asbestos risk, safety would be the number one priority for the publically elected Pennsylvania legislature. Instead, it looks like state lawmakers are poised to deny much-needed compensation to individuals and families ravaged by mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease.
Some politicians, such as PA House Rep. Warren Kampf, are working on a state law that would make it harder for those who are harmed by asbestos to get compensation.
Enter: the Pennsylvania FACT Act. This bill, introduced by Kampf to the State House of Representatives, would essentially change the rules on asbestos claims by requiring injured workers and their families to make a lot of case documentation public. Such information would include personal identifiers and financial details – including parts of a person’s social security number. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
Advocates and not-for-profit organizations for those harmed by asbestos, such as the ADAO, are worried that this could keep people from filing for compensation. In a November 2015 Huffington Post piece, EWG group executive Alex Formuzis talks about the wasteful administrative delays and families that may never see money for their loved ones before they die:
“The bill would erect a series of … hurdles for both victims and the asbestos trusts set up to compensate them. The delay and the drain on the trusts' resources make it likely that many victims and their families will not see their rightful compensation before death takes its toll… The deck is stacked against residents of Pennsylvania who are or will become sick from asbestos disease. Industry, led by the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has paid millions into a high-priced stable of K-Street lobbyists who are working to make sure the rights of victims are thwarted while protecting the profits of the very corporations that made them sick.”
Laws like the Pennsylvania FACT Act will ravage communities like Ambler, as they are built to serve no one but Corporate America.
Pennsylvania’s FACT Act is not unique – several other states are reviewing this legislation, and a similar bill passed through the House at the Federal level (President Obama has vowed to veto the bill should it also pass the Senate). Corporate backers include huge bankrolls from companies like Honeywell, Koch Industries, and Lockheed Martin – companies which have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in getting these laws passed.
Fight the FACT Act
Blocking victims and families suffering from mesothelioma and other asbestos-triggered diseases from seeking compensation is a giant step backward. The FACT Act hurts mesothelioma victims and helps companies to evade their responsibility. It also hurts communities like Ambler, in part because lower penalties make people feel like comprehensive safety remediation and policy is “no big deal.”
Rather than making laws that lessen consequences for Big Asbestos corporations, or hide the extent of the damage that has been done, governments should be making laws that enforce cleanup, ban dangerous uses of asbestos, and keep citizens safe.