While asbestos was found at most Superfund sites in Bucks and Montgomery counties, no one can say for sure whether people who lived near the sites were harmed by it.
That is because the link between many contaminants and disease is uncertain; scientists think leukemia, for example, may be caused by exposure to certain pollutants, but it may have other causes, too.
That is not the case in Ambler, where the “White Mountains” of asbestos are definitively linked to lung disease.
“Ambler is the epicenter of asbestos disease around here,” said Dr. Chris Christensen, a lung specialist with Abington Pulmonary and Critical Care Associates. “There’s a huge group of people in that community who have (lung) problems – a marker that says ‘I am asbestos-exposed.’ ”
Asbestos is a flexible mineral made up of threadlike fibers. When inhaled, it causes the lung-scarring disease asbestosis and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the lining of the lung.
For the better part of a century, asbestos was Ambler’s main industry. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ambler and the rest of the nation belatedly became aware of the risks of asbestos, which scientists had documented decades before.
Though Ambler’s asbestos plants are now closed, the mineral’s deadly handiwork is far from finished.
Ambler’s asbestos debris helped propel Montgomery County into 17th place on a list of the top 100 counties nationwide with asbestos-related deaths. The national study of deaths from 1979 to 2001 put Philadelphia in third place and Bucks County in 76th place. Since then, deaths in Pennsylvania and in Bucks and Montgomery counties from asbestos-related diseases have continued to climb.
Asbestosis and mesothelioma take decades to develop; many people who were exposed to asbestos in the households and on the White Mountains of Ambler are just now showing signs of illness, Christensen said.
“We’re just coming into the sweet spot of asbestos disease,” said the doctor, who treats several patients from Ambler. “Epidemiologists will tell you they don’t think they’re in the clear, nationally, from asbestos until 2030. Ambler is one of those places where you’ve still got another one or two generations coming into that sweet spot.”
Just how many Ambler residents have died or are dying of asbestos diseases, no one can say exactly. No one has done a study to find out.
Even if they did, the existing statistics would likely under-represent the problem. The government didn’t even track mesothelioma as a cause of death until 1999.
“They only count cases of people who’ve had asbestosis, and someone knows about it and thinks to put it on the death certificate,” said Dr. Halbert Fillinger, Montgomery County’s coroner and medical examiner. “But I’m sure quite a few are missed. It is not an easy diagnosis to make.”
Having an Ambler address made the diagnosis a bit easier.
Keasbey & Mattison Co. opened in the borough in 1881 and, shortly thereafter, began making such products as asbestos-cement pipe and asbestos shingles. For decades, it and its successors, CertainTeed Corp. and Nicolet Inc., dumped asbestos-laden sludge, broken pipe, and shingles outside their plants.
The largest of the piles, along Locust Street and a service road on the borough’s southwest side, became known as the “White Mountains.” They eventually contained nearly 3 million cubic yards of debris, enough to fill two Empire State buildings. Children slid down their sides and played on the Locust Street playground, built right underneath the mounds on land the companies gave to the borough.
Dust kicked up from the mounds swirled asbestos fibers through the air down nearby streets for decades.
In Ambler, as in other places where asbestos companies ruled, men who worked with the fibrous mineral have been dying for decades. Then their wives began dying, after inhaling the fibers when shaking out their husbands’ dusty, asbestos-covered clothes.
Now, others have started to die, neighbors of the factories and men and women who played on the White Mountains as children.
Joseph A. was one of them.
Joseph A. grew up on North Main Street, the son of an Italian immigrant who worked at the asbestos plant.
As a boy, he played on the White Mountains, according to the family’s attorney, Ben Shein. He sometimes visited his father at the plant and helped his mother with the laundry, washing his father’s asbestos-covered clothing.
It sounds reckless today, knowing what we know about asbestos, but everyone – the workers, the families, the town – had been assured for decades that the asbestos in Ambler wasn’t a problem.
“I played up there on top of those mountains every day, along with every other kid I knew,” remembered Eddie Flotte, 49, a watercolor artist who grew up in Ambler and now lives in Hawaii. “Nobody ever told us it was dangerous.”
Joseph A. died of mesothelioma in July 2003, shortly after turning 53.
Shein represented the family in a lawsuit against CertainTeed. Joseph A. had died by the time it went to court, but his videotaped deposition let the court see how emaciated he had become, how his wife had to help him dress, how a string of bells tied to his hand would summon her.
The case closed with a significant award for the Joseph A. family. How significant, the public won’t know. The resolution of the case is sealed, and Shein said he is forbidden from discussing it.
Today, the White Mountains are covered. The EPA spent $5 million for layers of earth and plants to keep the asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.
However, three other of Keasbey & Mattison’s old asbestos dumps never made it on the Superfund list, including six acres near Butler Pike and Maple Avenue. After months of public controversy, a developer in October withdrew a proposal to build a 17-story condominium building on that site.
The asbestos-laden debris remains there today. The only “cap” is whatever earth and plants Mother Nature has provided. According to Linda Rebarchak, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, the owners are required only to fence the property and post signs warning of asbestos contamination. Asbestos-containing material is allowed to remain on the surface of the site, she said.
When asked how the DEP could allow that, Rebarchak responded, “We’re not a health agency.”
Meanwhile, the hulking factories begun more than a century ago by Richard Mattison still stand along Ambler’s train tracks, windows knocked out and rusted smokestacks reaching for the sky.
And Ambler? Ambler’s popularity is surging. Trendy boutiques and great restaurants lure fresh, young faces to its neighborhoods and earned it a spot on Philadelphia magazine’s 2003 list of “10 Cool Neighborhoods (You’ve Never Heard of).”