The Project

+ What is REACH Ambler?

REACH Ambler is a collaboration between the Science History Institute (formerly the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. The project evolved out of research Penn was conducting in cooperation with Ambler residents that was related to current efforts to remediate the BoRit Superfund site. The Institute joined the project to provide a historical perspective on their research and to build programming designed for the broader Ambler community, using the historical materials gathered during the project. With the culmination of programming efforts, the Science History Institute and Penn will assess how the project methods may be transferred to additional communities and sites where Penn’s researchers are working.

Still images, oral history video, and short films for the project were developed by camra, an interdisciplinary collective of researchers and educators from the University of Pennsylvania.

This interdisciplinary project also involved close collaboration with community members and institutions in Ambler. Community members and government officials shared their stories and aided in the research and development of this community history project. Act II Playhouse provided resources for the development and performance of the project’s theater component.

+ Who is funding REACH Ambler?

The five-year project was funded by the National Institutes of Health through its Science Education Partnership Award program (award number R25OD010521-01).

+ Does REACH Ambler or its partners have any influence over the EPA’s decisons?

The EPA’s work in Ambler is largely completed. The REACH Ambler project has no immediate impact on any of the work of or the decisions made by the EPA.

As a project aimed at understanding how communities make sense of their industrial legacy and imagine the future, we do, however, aim to share our experiences and findings with the EPA and other agencies so that they might better understand the context of science and risk communication when working in these situations.

+ What is REACH Ambler’s position on asbestos removal?

The project is interested in the experiences and opinions of Ambler residents and does not have a position on asbestos removal or remediation.

+ Is this project connected to the Superfund Research and Training Program Center?

The University of Pennsylvania has a grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) at the NIH. This is a grant that funds a number of research projects related to asbestos. The Superfund Research and Training Program Center at Penn (Penn SRP) is separate from REACH Ambler, but the researchers in both projects are interested in the outcomes of the other. For more information on the Penn SRP Center, visit

Asbestos Remediation

+ What is asbestos? Where does it come from?

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral material once used in industry and buildings for its insulation properties, strength, and resistance to heat, fire, and chemical and biological attack. The name “asbestos” is a general term given to six types of fibrous minerals used in commercial products that have similar potential health effects.

Chrysotile asbestos (also called serpentine or white asbestos) is the most commonly used variety of asbestos. It is the least brittle type of asbestos. It is generally a white, grey, greenish, or yellowish color. The other five varieties of asbestos have much longer, straighter particle shapes. They range in color from white to gray and brown and from green to blue and lavender. Before processing, asbestos can be described as packed bundles of fibers that can be relatively easily separated and broken apart. Asbestos is generally brittle by itself, but is usually mixed with other materials. Other serpentine and amphibole minerals should not be confused with asbestos since there are many non-asbestiform varieties of these minerals.

Asbestos is obtained by open-pit mining. Asbestos mining hit its peak around 1973, when about 60 mines were in operation across the United States. Shortly thereafter, the discovery of the negative health effects of asbestos led to the closure of these mines. The asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, is now the largest Superfund site to date. There are no asbestos mines currently in operation in the United States.

+ Why is asbestos in my surrounding environment?

Asbestos has been used in products like cloth and paper since antiquity, but was only used on a large industrial scale in the last two centuries. Asbestos during this time was used in many components of buildings, including cement, piping, insulation, and tiling. It was also used in car parts like brake pads, clutches, hood liners, gaskets, and valves, as well as textiles like cloths, fireman suits, and rope. Asbestos proved to have good insulation properties and strength and to be resistant to burning.

Asbestos can still be found in many buildings in the United States today. Houses built between 1930 and 1950 may have asbestos as insulation, and asbestos may be found in roofing, shingles, paints, patching compounds, walls and floors around wood-burning stoves, tiles, pipes, furnaces, and more. Different companies and groups suggest testing material that originated any time from 1900 at the earliest findable date to 1989 at the latest. It is most important to test material that is no longer in good condition or is at risk of releasing fibers into the air. There are strict regulations for asbestos removal from buildings since the removal process can easily expose people to the negative health impacts of asbestos.

Currently, asbestos is allowed in certain products, such as brake pads, cement piping, and insulation, as long as it accounts for less than 1% of the product.

Asbestos can also be found in industrial dump sites like those in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Asbestos products were produced in Ambler from 1881 until 1987. During this time asbestos waste was dumped at two sites in Ambler, covering a total of about 22.6 acres. It is estimated that these sites contain more than 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos. The EPA started its cleanup of the Ambler Asbestos Piles Site in 1986 and finished in 1993. Cleanup of the BoRit Site started in 2009 and is estimated to finish in 2015.

+ Why does asbestos need to be remediated?

Research over a number of decades has shown that asbestos products are not safe as they were once thought to be. Over time, as asbestos products break apart, fibers are released into the air. Dangerous levels of exposures often occur for people who hold certain occupations, such as those working in asbestos factories, fire fighters, contractors, and others. These fibers, if inhaled, can become lodged in lung tissue and can cause health problems, such as lung tissue damage, which can develop into asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related diseases.

Previously, the Ambler asbestos piles were uncovered, which left the surrounding community at risk to exposure when wind and other natural elements carried asbestos particles into areas that people inhabited. The EPA is remediating the asbestos piles to prevent further exposure.

+ Can asbestos move in the soil?

Over time, if an area of land is disturbed enough through erosion, storms, long-term movement of rivers, construction, and land development, underlying material in a landscape can be uncovered. Vegetation planted over soil caps to cover materials can prevent such erosion and so prevent exposing the surrounding community to asbestos. The roots from the vegetation hold onto the soil and keep it from moving.

The BoRit site in Ambler uses a combination of soil, geocells, concrete, and vegetation to form and stabilize the cap and surrounding area, including stream banks. This remediation approach aims to prevent resurfacing of asbestos for over 100 years.

+ Is there risk for asbestos to contaminate nearby water sources?

The EPA Maximum Containment Level (MCL) of asbestos in water is 7 million fibers per liter. Extensive literature has shown that, unlike inhaling asbestos, ingesting drinking water containing measurable amounts of asbestos even higher than the MCL has not increased gastrointestinal cancer rates.

In the 2011 Annual Drinking Water Quality report, the Ambler Borough Water Department declared that there were no detectable levels of asbestos in the drinking water for the borough. The maximum amount of asbestos ever found in the area was at 100 feet below the BoRit site at a concentration of 0.5 million fibers per liter, well below the EPA MCL of 7 million fibers per liter.

+ After a remediation process, am I still at risk to drink or breathe asbestos?

When a remediation project properly caps asbestos contamination and maintains the site using best management practices, the site should pose close to no risk for the resurfacing of asbestos for over 100 years, according to soil cap stability experiments. There should also be no risk for breathing asbestos particles after proper site remediation, and there should be no risk from drinking asbestos particles.

The remediation process used at the Ambler BoRit site involves capping the asbestos pile with a layer of soil and other materials. Vegetation will be planted to help stabilize the cap. A combination of geocells, concrete, and vegetation was used to help stabilize the nearby stream bank to prevent erosion. Geocells (also called cellular confinement systems, or CCSs) are used in civil engineering for roadway load support, walls and steep slopes, channel protection, and erosion control.

+ What implications does the movement of asbestos during the remediation process have on the health and safety of the environment and surrounding community?

Following proper remediation safety procedures can minimize the ability of asbestos to become airborne during the remediation process. The U.S. permissible exposure limit for airborne asbestos is 0.1 fibers per milliliter for workplace air. No official safe exposure threshold has ever been established; data show that risk for asbestos-related disease increases with increased exposure.

During the remediation process asbestos should be wetted before movement to minimize asbestos-containing dust particles from releasing into the air. Adding water to the asbestos-containing material helps particles that would otherwise rise into the air become heavier and stick together temporarily. However, the process is not 100% effective, and occasionally some dust may get into the air. Air sampling and monitoring is conducted throughout the remediation process to ensure as little asbestos as possible gets released. There should be no current risk of breathing in asbestos particles from the sites as long as they remain capped and undisturbed.

+ What are the other methods for remediation?

Asbestos is an extremely stable substance. It does not burn, rot, or react with chemicals or heat very easily. It does not easily stick to other small particles, does not accumulate in aquatic organisms, and is not readily degradable by aquatic organisms or light damage. Some research has shown that progressive heating of asbestos up to 1600°C can destroy the fibers, but this process is impractical in most remediation cases. Further, this type of remediation usually involves digging up the soil before treating the asbestos and putting it back afterward, which is dangerous due to the risk of asbestos-containing dust getting into the air during the digging process. Electricity has also been used to heat soil to high temperatures as a remediation method, but the use of such a high electric current can be extremely dangerous. This process, called vitrification, proves to be very energy intensive and unstable. Thus, remediation methods involving heat, light, chemicals, and bioaccumulation are not usually advisable.

Public entities, such as the EPA, and private groups, such as Idom, seem to prefer to use a soil cap remediation method for asbestos in soil because of its stable nature.

Transportation to a landfill and then capping is another remediation option. The movement of asbestos and design of a soil cap is determined by what will most effectively prevent future release of the material into the air or water supply based on the location’s chemistry, soil type, climate, future land use, site location, and budget. The federal National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants requires these caps to be at least 6 inches thick and covered with vegetation.

Asbestos and Health

+ How is someone exposed to asbestos?

The primary source of asbestos exposure comes from accidental inhalation or dermal (skin) exposure.

+ How does asbestos exposure affect health?

Those exposed to asbestos have the potential to develop several diseases, including but not limited to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. There are two major types of mesothelioma associated with asbestos exposure. The primary type is pleural mesothelioma, which develops in the lining of the lungs. Peritoneal mesothelioma, the second most common type, forms in the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity. Asbestosis, a non-carcinogenic lung illness, involves scarring in the lungs from asbestos fibers that can lead to chronic upper respiratory problems. An asbestosis diagnosis also increases the chances of developing lung cancer.

+ What is the likelihood of developing health problems from asbestos exposure?

Primarily, the duration and frequency of exposure influences your likelihood of future disease. Smoking and other negative health impacts can reduce your immune levels and, consequently, negatively affect your body’s response to asbestos exposure. Other preexisting lung issues play a role in determining your future health outcomes. Genetics may also play a role.

+ What is a latency period? Why is it important to asbestos-related diseases?

A latency period is the time between when a person is exposed to a carcinogenic agent (such as asbestos) and when symptoms of disease occur. The latency period for asbestos can be anywhere from 20 to 50 years. Such long periods allow for people to relocate away from their exposure site and for many confounding variables to accrue, making it difficult to link disease to its original cause.

+ Am I at risk? Who are the most likely groups to experience asbestos-related disease and why?

Exposure can occur in a number of places—at home, at work, or in the community. Most asbestos exposure occurs in occupational settings. People who worked with asbestos directly for prolonged periods received direct, chronic exposure. Family members of such occupational workers also face some exposure risk.

Asbestos can be found in the walls of homes and commercial buildings constructed before 1980. When this asbestos remains sealed in place, it is unlikely to be dangerous. However, if the asbestos is disturbed, fibers may be released into the air. If you plan to do any construction work on your home, make sure you know the types of substances in your walls, ceilings, and attics first. Make sure you know what asbestos looks like so that you are prepared in case you come in contact with it.

+ What steps can I take to lessen my chances of developing asbestos-related diseases if I feel I’m at risk?

Once you have been exposed to asbestos, you cannot reverse the exposure or health consequences of the exposure. You can, however, take a number of steps to reduce your chances of developing an asbestos-related disease. Immediately remove yourself from any environment with asbestos to prevent further exposure. Be sure to tell your doctor if you think you have ever been exposed. Make sure you vaccinate yourself against the flu and pneumonia to maintain a healthy immune system. If you are a smoker, quit smoking. Make sure to receive regular medical examinations to optimize your overall health.