The Philadelphia area is one of the most affected by asbestos-triggered diseases, with annual rates much higher than the country’s average, as reported by researchers from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) Action Fund. Mesothelioma is one of the known diseases to be caused by exposure to asbestos.
According to a press release, 4.9 out of every 100,000 deaths nationwide are thought to be caused by asbestos exposure. But in Delaware County, just outside of the city of Philadelphia, this rate leaps to 12.9. Between 1999 and 2013, 1,078 residents of Delaware County died from asbestos-related diseases.
The report includes federal archives on mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as determined by the formula advanced by international cancer researchers at the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
Besides Delaware, other counties in Pennsylvania have very high asbestos-triggered disease rates, such as Chester County (439 deaths for the same years, between 1999 and 2013, leading to a 6.1 per 100,000 annual mortality rate); Bucks County (747 deaths, 8.0 annual mortality rate); Philadelphia County (1,345 deaths, 5.9 annual mortality rate), and Montgomery County, nearly twice that of Philadelphia (1,272 deaths, 10.8 per 100,000 annual mortality rate).
Across the Delaware River in New Jersey, several historic counties have also been highly hit by asbestos, with annual mortality rates ranging between 14.5 per 100,000 in Gloucester County to 9.5 in Burlington County.
Asbestos was intensively used throughout most of the 20th century by several industries that were also an economic boon for the Philadelphia-area’s development. These industries, such as shipbuilding, petroleum refineries, steel, textiles, and automobile manufacture, all used the heat-resistant qualities of the material, with no one realizing the harm asbestos causes to health.
One example is the 1882 story of Richard Mattison, dubbed the “Asbestos King”, in the small town of Ambler, Montgomery County, just north of Philadelphia. His asbestos factories had a considerable negative impact in the region.
The asbestos industry in that region led to 1.5 million cubic yards of asbestos waste in a 25-acre area that residents called the White Mountains, and where Ambler-area children would play throughout the year. In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the area on its National Priorities List of Superfund sites.
A 2011 study estimated that Ambler residents were 3.1 more likely to get a mesothelioma diagnosis than any other residents in Pennsylvania. In the summer of 2015, a city controller named Alan Butkovitz discovered high potential asbestos exposure risks during a major sweep of Philadelphia public schools.
Despite the fact that asbestos production has ceased in the United States, asbestos remains legal and is frequently imported into the country. Many homes and schools built before 1980 are almost certainly built with asbestos-made materials, which can be harmful if airborne. This causes a major concern because even though asbestos is no longer made in the U.S. and buildings can no longer be erected using the material, the number of asbestos-related deaths has not declined.
There are several reasons for this. One, the dormancy period for asbestos-related diseases can be very long, with victims diagnosed as much as 20, 30, and 40 years after exposure; and two, there was so much asbestos and waste produced, it continues to be accessible in the region as a source of exposure, including to children who may become victims of asbestos illnesses decades down the line.
A recent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that certain professions are at increased risk of exposure to asbestos. Compared to the general population, teachers and firefighters are at twice the risk of dying from mesothelioma. Construction trade workers are also at a higher risk.
In coming weeks, a key committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will vote on legislation that threatens to delay and refuse to compensate Pennsylvanians dying from asbestos-triggered illnesses. The Fairness in Claims and Transparency Act (HH 1428), proposed by Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Dist. 157, would take plaintiffs and their lawyers through laborious and unnecessary legal barriers, as well as force plaintiffs to disclose confidential negotiations, among others.
Since asbestos exposure is of such great health concern in the region, there is much opposition to this proposed legislation, including William Samuel, director of the state’s Government Affairs Department, who wrote an open letter last January, and other groups, who are now going public.