PHILADELPHIA — Just north of Philadelphia, the communities of West and South Ambler are working to recover from the ramifications of their town’s long-closed asbestos factory. Today, residents in these communities remain at risk of environmental exposure and a potentially increased risk of developing mesothelioma, a rare cancer which is caused almost exclusively by exposure to asbestos. To help empower residents to shape the future of their communities, and explain the potential consequences associated with asbestos exposure, researchers at the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology (CEET), Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, have been awarded a $1.2 million grant to develop an educational program using the communities’ history of asbestos products manufacturing and resulting asbestos exposure. Funding for the program is provided by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), which is administered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
From the late 1880s through the present day, residents of West and South Ambler, Penna. have had either occupational or environmental exposure to asbestos. As a result, both current and former residents of the area now face potentially serious long-term health consequences. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Health has determined that there has been an increase in the rate of mesothelioma in the area compared to Pennsylvania as a whole. While little is known about what this increase means, researchers are hopeful that continued investigation and education will yield more information about health risks to current residents and possible remedies.
“We know there is an existing health risk, but that’s just one piece of the problem; these communities suffered great social and economic consequences when the asbestos factory closed, and today, they are still trying to recover from that loss,” said Frances K. Barg, Ph.D., associate professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, and principal investigator for the project. “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, while giving them an opportunity to help create a healthier, safer neighborhood.”
Barg, along with Edward Emmett, MD, MS, professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of the CEET, and their team will develop a storehouse of information online and at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in center city Philadelphia about asbestos-related health risks, profile people who were affected by living or working near the asbestos materials, and provide an opportunity for community members and scientists to learn about each other’s experiences.
Major components of the project include: (1) documenting the history of lower-income African-American and Italian immigrant asbestos workers, their families, and their neighbors in West and South Ambler through recorded interviews and (2) developing an accessible repository of documents, photographs, life stories, news accounts, and scientific data about the communities that can be used as resource material for students, researchers, and community activists. Educational components of the program will work to inform citizens, scientists and policy-makerson long-term health effects and other potential consequences from living and working near aging, hazardous industrial sites.
“We’ve learned in our CEET pilot research project that the opportunity for people to tell their stories is a very significant source of healing for members of the community,” said Barg. “By giving those affected by this situation a voice and a forum to share their experiences, we hope we’ll be able to contribute multiple points of view to the recovery effort.”
In addition to chronicling the Ambler asbestos story, the project is intended to serve as a case study for other communities that face similar challenges. Educational materials will be developed to make the Ambler case study relevant to community members, policy-makers, health care and public health professionals, business executives, management and workers, university students, school children, and other communities affected by pollution and toxic waste sites.
CEET is an Environmental Health Sciences Core Center funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
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