The History of Ambler, Pennsylvania
Ambler, Pennsylvania, a small town 16 miles north of Philadelphia, was once known as the asbestos manufacturing capital of the world. The town thrived because of Richard Mattison, the son of a Quaker farmer. He went to the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. While at pharmacy school, he befriended Henry Keasbey and started Keasbey Mattison (K&M) in 1873. The company created patent medicines, which were over the counter remedies that had wild claims about effectiveness, but were not actually effective. Mattison also started to experiment with asbestos and found that when magnesium carbonate and asbestos were mixed together they created a very effective fabric insulation that could be wrapped around steam pipes, helping save on fuel costs.
Mattison ended up moving to Ambler because it was easy to transport asbestos from Quebec to Ambler using the railroad. In 1896 Ambler’s first textile plant was built by Mattison, where insulation for power generating boiler houses, steam trains, fireproof curtains, brake pads for cars, and their most lucrative product- asbestos cement fireproof shingles were built. Mattison then bought a 120 acre asbestos mine in Quebec to keep up with the demand for asbestos. Before the stock market crash happened in 1929, Mattison bought out Keasbey for four million dollars, losing all of his money. He then had to sell the company to Turner and Newall (British asbestos company).
Throughout their lives the factory workers of Ambler were exposed to high levels of asbestos. Raw asbestos was mixed with cement to make shingles and magnesium carbonate to make different insulation products. The worst conditions were in the textile plant though. Workers beat raw asbestos by hand to open up fibers, which were then led into carding machines (turned the raw asbestos into yarn for use in gaskets, electrical insulation, brake linings, and other products). The carding process was easily interrupted so they did not have exhaust fans- making the workplace particularly dusty. The factory was so dusty that asbestos left the factory and piled on clothes, cars, and houses.
With all the dangers surrounding asbestos, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reduced the use of the carcinogen. In 1973 the sale of asbestos based insulation spray stopped while in 1975 solid asbestos insulation prone to crumbling was outlawed. In 1974 asbestos dumping was banned, but this did not help the White Mountains (1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos waste piled up and spread between 25 acres). With all the asbestos waste around town the EPA had to oversee remediation efforts at the White Mountains, renamed the Ambler Asbestos Piles. In 1986 the piles were designated a Superfund Site. Asbestos companies also had to pay to grade and cap the piles with soil, and install erosion and sedimentation control. Fences and warning signs were also placed around the site.
Asbestos is also still buried and scattered throughout Ambler’s old factories. This worries officials because uprooted trees, burrowing animals, and flooding could potentially bring it to the surface, exposing people to the carcinogen. The EPA spent $25 million trying to prevent this from happening by burying the waste, layering it with a synthetic fabric that prevents upward movement, capping it, and stabilizing banks of waterways. Hopefully the asbestos can be removed at some point so the town can become a safer place to live for all of its residents and remediation efforts do not need to be continued.
If you have been exposed to asbestos and now have lung cancer or mesothelioma you may be entitled to compensation. Call us at 412-471-3980 or fill out our contact form to speak to an attorney and learn your options.
Samson Reiny, “Living in the Town Asbestos Built” Science History Institute (Summer 2015). [Link]