UPenn Receives Grant to Study Impact of Asbestos on Health, Community in Ambler in The Ambler Gazette

December 6, 2012 - Ambler, PA

By Thomas Celona

As a child growing up on Maple Street in West Ambler, Ruth Weeks used to play outside all the time, climbing up and down, in and out of a huge pile nearby.

“I thought it was snow,” she said.

That pile of “snow” she now knows was a pile of asbestos.

Weeks’ story isn’t unlike those of most people who grew up in South or West Ambler.

“We just didn’t realize any risk,” she said.

Decades later, the full extent of the risk from asbestos isn’t fully known, and a lot of questions remain.

But one thing that’s for certain is asbestos has had a huge impact on the Ambler community.

The extent of that impact—both medically and socially—is the subject of a new project that will take a holistic view of how the Ambler area has been shaped by the legacy of asbestos manufacturing.

Penn Medicine recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to create an educational program exploring the community’s history with asbestos.

Ambler emerged as an asbestos manufacturing town with the growth of the Keasbey and Mattison Co., which operated from 1897 to 1934. Keasbey and Mattison’s legacy remains clear in the Ambler skyline with the Ambler Boiler House, along with several remaining manufacturing buildings in South Ambler. Asbestos production continued through the 1980s before the risks and contamination of asbestos were realized.

The asbestos production led to two EPA Superfund sites: the Ambler Asbestos Piles—often called the “White Mountains”—in South Ambler, which lies in Ambler Borough, and the BoRit Asbestos site across Butler Avenue in West Ambler, which falls in Ambler, Upper Dublin and Whitpain townships.

“We have been interested in the issues out in Ambler for a couple of years now,” said Dr. Frances Barg, an associate professor of family medicine and community health at UPenn and the principal investigator for the new grant project.

Her colleague, Dr. Edward Emmett, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine, has become involved in the issue, serving on the Community Advisory Group for the BoRit site.

“One of the things that he wanted to understand better was how people’s lifestyles might have [been affected],” Barg said. “What’s the relationship between someone’s working conditions, the activities they did outside of work, how that might have affected the kinds of exposures they had to asbestos?”

With Barg’s expertise in anthropology and Emmett’s in medicine, they decided to team up for a project that would look at both the medical and social impacts of asbestos in Ambler.

They applied for the NIH grant, and after more than a year of waiting, they found out in late summer they would be receiving the grant, according to Barg.

The project will explore two main issues, the first being the uncertainty that exists around asbestos.

“There’s a lot of information out there and a lot of misinformation out there,” Barg said. “We know some things about asbestos, but we don’t know everything about asbestos.”

The project will aim to clear up misconceptions and provide information to residents about exactly what is and is not known about asbestos and its impact on human health.

The second aim of the project will examine the broader social and community impact asbestos has had on Ambler.

“The other thing we heard very loud and clear is people are worried about more than just their health,” Barg said, noting they are concerned about the community and how it moves forward. “We think it’s very important for people to be able to talk about, in a public way, what this has meant to them so scientists can understand the broader effects asbestos has had on the community.”

The grant covers five years of work by Barg and her team.

“Our plan is to spend the first year talking to people and trying to learn about what are the issues that people want to have information about,” she said. “We would really like to hear from community members, from scientists, from experts about what people feel are the important issues we all need to learn about.”

The team will then work to collect as much information as possible about the different subject areas, with the goal of creating a exhibit at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Center City by the third year of the project. The exhibit would display recorded interviews, documents, photographs, life stories, news accounts and scientific data, according to a press release about the grant.

In addition to the exhibit in Center City, all the information will go into an online database, and the team also hopes to do something in Ambler, according to Barg.

While the project will focus on Ambler, Barg said there’s the potential for the study to become a case study for similar communities.

“I think that one of the things that is important about Ambler is that there are lots of communities like Ambler where an industry was vital to its health . . . and that industry may have had different kinds of problems related to it, maybe in terms of health. Some of those industries may even still be operating,” she said. “The question is, ‘How does the community deal with the ramifications of being located near an old industrial site that may have had an effect on the people in the community?’”

Link to The Ambler Gazette.

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