In the Keystone State, industry has always been king. From the shores of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers in the east to the banks of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in the west, factories have long been part of the landscape of Pennsylvania. And, of course, those factories provided employment for tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, including both men and women.
Some families boast generations of factory laborers, all in the same industry. It’s a proud workforce that toils long hours…one that has been in place for decades, providing essential products, like steel, to the world.
Of course, with industry comes a long list of dangers. Ever since men (and women) began working in manufacturing and other such trades, there have been accidents, especially in the days before governments passed laws about workplace safety. Workers have died in fires, fallen to their death from high places, and been fatally injured by malfunctioning equipment.
Others have died because of the conditions in which they work and the toxins to which they are exposed on a daily basis.
In Pennsylvania, on both ends of the state and even in the middle, asbestos has been a culprit in many deaths among industrial workers. A naturally-mined mineral, asbestos was long used as a heat-resistant material; a component in all sorts of products that were made to stand up to high temperatures and other harsh conditions.
Its inclusion in various products often added to the strength of those products. Furthermore, asbestos was cheap and readily available, so its use was a no-brainer, so to speak.
But the result of that over-use has been generations of workers touched by asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, a very aggressive cancer that has historically been difficult to treat and kills quickly.
Pennsylvania’s asbestos legacy, especially the areas in and around its two major cities, has been greatly affected by asbestos exposure and the problems continue.
Research the history of manufacturing in Philadelphia and you’ll find a long list of industries that date back to the early days of the colony. And, certainly, when the Industrial Revolution took hold, more and more plants, mills, and factories opened their doors along the city’s waterways and beyond.
One Philadelphia suburb has the sad distinction of being the location of the country’s oldest and largest asbestos disposal site. Ambler, located just a stone’s throw from the city center, was home to CertainTeed and Federal Mogul, both manufacturers of a bevy of asbestos-containing products.
The companies were both bad stewards of the land, leaving behind enough toxic asbestos waste to fill 150,000 dumpsters, says the EPA.
Head down the road a piece and you’ll find the so-called BoRit site, another toxic asbestos dump that’s adding insult to injury for the people of Ambler and other neighboring community.
Though both sites have been addressed by the EPA and the debris has been covered with clean topsoil, the rates of asbestos-caused cancer in that area are much higher than in other parts of the U.S., a sure sign that not only former employees at those workplaces but also community members are suffering the results of asbestos exposure.
Some folks refer to the piles of asbestos there as “The White Mountains of Ambler” while others call Ambler “the town that asbestos built”. Either way, this is a clear sign that asbestos isn’t out of the picture, even though guidelines strictly governing its use were set forth in the late 1970s.
The EPA continues to monitor the sites, concerned that curious children or vagrants will disturb the piles and kick up asbestos dust, creating more problems.
On the other side of the Keystone State, Pittsburgh has done their best over the best few decades to become a delightfully livable city that attracts visitors who come to browse its excellent museums, eat at its notable restaurants, catch a Steelers game, or ride the Duquesne Incline for a great view of the city. From the outside, it’s a pretty cool place.
But the hard working people of Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County have long been marred by the effects of asbestos exposure. Asbestos-related deaths in this vast county are sky high – much higher than they should be, according to national statistics.
The biggest culprit in the area were the steel mills, where – for decades – workers were exposed day in and day out to asbestos-containing products, largely used for insulation purposes.
The steel industry, though many times smaller now than it was in its heyday, still employs many individuals in the Pittsburgh area and also in other parts of the state.
One would think, of course, that asbestos is now out of the picture and that these workers are safe from this toxin (though their jobs are often still dangerous). However, it’s been proven that this is not the case.
Only recently, the EPA fined industry giant U.S. Steel to the tune of $170,000 (just a proverbial drop-in-the-bucket for the mega-corporation) for failing to prevent a handful of workers from being exposed to asbestos materials. In this case, packing material and an asbestos pipe were the items in question, though it’s likely that there are still many other asbestos-laden materials inside U.S. Steel’s numerous plants.
The EPA issued little more than a slap on the hand, though its message to the company was stronger than its financial penalty. They noted that “once again”, U.S. Steel had failed to protect its employees.
Obviously, it’s a scenario they have seen time and time again. Nothing is likely to change, however, until the penalties become stiffer and the mineral is banned. Many advocates of a total ban are getting tired of waiting for that to happen.
Perhaps it seems ridiculous to ban asbestos now – in the second decade of the 21st century – when it’s likely that most workers are no longer exposed and mesothelioma rates are dropping. But, as is evident by the most recent U.S. Steel infraction, the mineral is still a menace, not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the United States.
Actually, most Americans may not realize that asbestos is NOT banned in the U.S. It seems logical that it would be. After all, much of the European Union and many Asian countries banned the toxic substance long ago. It’s not for lack of trying.
Organizations like the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization have been rallying for a ban for more than a decade, supporting politicians like former senator Patty Murray of Washington, who introduced a bill to ban asbestos way back in 2002.
Finally, however, just a short time ago in early June, a gate was opened that could potentially lead to a total ban of asbestos use in the U.S. At that time, the Senate finally passed a bill (named for late senator Frank Lautenberg) that represented the first major environmental legislation in more than 20 years and ushered in the chance to overhaul of outdated environmental laws that should have been revamped a long time ago.
When signing the bill, President Obama referenced the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which had been signed into law by President Gerald Ford.
“In 1976, some 62,000 chemicals were already on the market. But the law placed demands on the EPA that were so tough, so onerous that it became virtually impossible to actually see if those chemicals were harming anybody,” the President said.
“In fact, out of those original 62,000 chemicals, only five have been banned. Five. And only a tiny percentage have even been reviewed for health and safety. The system was so complex, it was so burdensome, that our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos — a known carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year. I think a lot of Americans would be shocked by all that,” he added.
President Obama also pointed out that the bill will make it easier for government agencies to review chemicals already on the market and will give the EPA the funds they need to get the job done.
Incidences such as the recent U.S. Steel infraction make it clear why the Lautenberg Act is so important, even now. Asbestos is still present in many mills, plants, and factories, and even in homes and schools. Legislation that supports a ban would mean that corporations like U.S. Steel would be made to remove toxic materials and wouldn’t be so casual about allowing workers to be exposed to asbestos and other dangerous chemicals.
In the meantime, those who have already been injured by asbestos continue to exercise their option to sue the companies responsible for their exposure. Through litigation or through payments from asbestos trust funds, where available, mesothelioma victims are able to gain compensation to help them meet financial obligations associated with a cancer diagnosis.
Those who’ve suffered with the disease hope the ban will come soon, sparing others the suffering they’ve endured.