Pennsylvania Town Burdened by History of Asbestos Contamination

by Sokolove Law

It’s tempting to think of asbestos as a relic of the industrial age, but this carcinogenic mineral is still widely used in industrial process throughout the U.S. Trace quantities of asbestos can be found in brake pads, pipeline wraps, vinyl flooring, certain articles of clothing, and there are currently few efforts to scale back its production.

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken steps to control or at least clean up sources of asbestos contamination, the threat to public health remains significant, and no community knows this better than the town of Ambler, Pennsylvania.

This small Philadelphia suburb began producing asbestos back in 1881, and continued to do so for much of the twentieth century, with one site used as a principle dumping ground for asbestos waste up until the 1970s. It was this unprecedented scale of manufacturing—not to mention the largely unregulated processes supporting it—that earned Ambler’s nickname, “the asbestos-manufacturing capital of the world,” and it has never quite been able to remove this stigma.

To this day, Ambler suffers from inordinately high levels of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases, and there’s little sign of improvement. A recent toxicology analysis of debris removed from a former EPA Superfund site tested positive for 60 percent chrysotile asbestos. The finding is most likely just the tip of the iceberg for Ambler, which has been the site of industrial asbestos waste disposal for more than a century.

“Asbestos manufacturing was kind of invented in our little community,” says Ambler Borough Council member Sharon McCormick. In fact, Ambler is home to the oldest and largest asbestos waste disposal site in the U.S.

The Town that Asbestos Built

In 1881, a manufacturing firm called Keasbey and Mattison Company relocated from Philadelphia to Ambler, and began producing a variety of building and construction supplies, most of which contained asbestos. The naturally occurring mineral was preferred for its insulating and fire-resistant qualities. But, at the time, the exact dangers of asbestos weren’t very well understood. The first diagnosis of asbestosis didn’t occur until 1924, and the relation between asbestos and mesothelioma wasn’t recorded until the 1940s. So, from 1881 to 1934, Keasbey and Mattison Company was free to process vast quantities of chrysotile asbestos, effectively contaminating much of Montgomery County in the process.

But it didn’t end there. In 1934, the company was sold to a British manufacturer Turner & Newall, another manufacturer that, headquartered in Ambler, used asbestos in their products well into the 1980s. This period of asbestos manufacturing continues to be a scourge on the community of Ambler, not merely in terms of public health, but also in terms of the commercial and industrial stigma associated with years of toxic waste pollution.

Between 2000 and 2009, there were 142 mesothelioma-related deaths in Montgomery County alone, making for an age-adjusted mortality rate of 19.1 per 100,000. (The national average is roughly 11.) Mesothelioma, a particularly malignant form of cancer that affects the outer lining of the lungs and internal chest wall, is caused by exposure to asbestos.

Even the EPA, the agency tasked with cleaning up pollution sites in the U.S., acknowledges a statistically high rate of cancer in the region. Earlier this year, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PADOH) finalized a study that found an increased rate of mesothelioma in Montgomery County, as compared to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as a whole.  The data is based on 22 years of reported data (specifically, a cancer registry analysis spanning 1990 to 2011).

A Rude Reminder

The true extent of asbestos contamination in Ambler may not be fully understood. After the passing of the Superfund (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability) Act of 1980, Ambler was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List, and has since registered two asbestos dumps for cleanup, only one of which has actually been completed.

Just last month, however, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) published a report finding 60% chrysotile asbestos in a debris sample collected outside the Ambler Asbestos Piles Superfund Site. According to the EPA, roughly 6,000 people live within a half-mile of this location, with one residence as close as 200 feet. That’s considerably closer than what any expert would recommend as a safe distance.

“Ambler, Pennsylvania, is just one of many American communities still haunted by the most horrific and long-running public health crisis in history—asbestos waste contamination,” said ADAO president Linda Reinstein in a statement. “Recent laboratory tests indicate that, for the residents of Ambler, there is no end in sight. As a result of the Keasbey and Mattison Company’s extensive manufacturing, processing, and distribution from 1897 to 1962, Ambler became known as the ‘Asbestos Capital of World.’”

According to Reinstein, more than 12,000 Americans are killed each year by asbestos. Reinstein’s home state of Pennsylvania currently ranks second in the nation when it comes to mesothelioma and asbestosis-related deaths.

The ADAO also called upon Congress and the EPA to pass legislation that bans the use of asbestos in the United States—a prospect that has proved historically difficult. The EPA attempted to phase out its use in the 1980s, but the asbestos industry sued the agency and ultimately won. As a result, unlike most other developed nations, many products in the U.S. are legally permitted to contain certain amounts of asbestos.

For the 6,000 residents of Ambler, the news of the ADAO’s toxicology report is distressing, to say the least. Cleanup of the 25-acre site was supposed to be completed in 1993. In fact, the site was removed from the National Priorities List in 1996, and in 2012, a five-year review even reported that the site “continues to be protective of human health and the environment.”

And that’s just one of two EPA Superfund sites in Ambler. Council member Sharon McCormick is actively petitioning to add a third. She believes it was the EPA who failed to take Turner & Newall to task back in the 1970s and 80s, when it was discovered that they were dumping asbestos waste. She claims the agency has also failed to properly account for additional asbestos piles throughout Montgomery County.

“If 60 percent is now at the fence line, that means the (EPA) didn’t do their job,” she says.

For their part, the EPA has responded to the most recent toxicology report, claiming they are “aware of the recent laboratory test results” and are “currently gathering additional information as to how, when, and where the samples were collected and analyzed.”

Gina N. Soscia, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for Ambler, explained that the “EPA will review this information and determine what additional action, if any, is necessary.”

The other Superfund site in Ambler, dubbed the “BoRit Site,” is currently undergoing a review process by the EPA. Soscia reports the agency is “completing an extensive response action there which involved constructing a protective cap and adding flood mitigation measures to reduce the effects of future storm events.”

Facing Reality

To council member Sharon McCormick, the urgency of the situation appears lost on the EPA. Whether due to budget restrictions or logistical mishandling, the problem simply isn’t being addressed.

“We’re only a little community – there are only 6,400 people that live here,” McCormick says. “But you can’t have children living near 60 percent asbestos. I don’t care what you think you’re doing. This is just unconscionable and unethical.”

The health and safety risk is apparently grave enough that the University of Pennsylvania has gotten involved. The institution recently received a four-year, $10 million grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to study asbestos exposure pathways, and how asbestos-related diseases can be mitigated in communities like Ambler.

In any case, asbestos is likely to remain an issue for Ambler and the surrounding community for years to come. Some advocates believe it is absolutely vital for residents to understand the dangers of asbestos and to take necessary steps to limit their exposure.

On Saturday, September 19th, Diane Blackburn-Zambetti, director of policy and prevention education at the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) will present an educational program titled “Asbestos and Your Health.” The purpose of the two-and-a-half hour program is to provide “unbiased, reliable scientific information about asbestos, as well as disease prevention.”

The MARF seminar is just one of many signs of a cold truth settling on the town of Ambler: Asbestos, at least for the time being, is here to stay.

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