Pennsylvania's Asbestos Problem

Danger Asbestos yellow warning tape close up
Danger Asbestos yellow warning tape close up

Townsfolk called them "the white mountains of Ambler" - the piles of asbestos-laced material that loomed above the neighborhood adjacent to one of the asbestos factories in the hamlet on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Winter or summer, kids rode flattened cardboard boxes down the piles, one of which rose nearly 100 feet in the air, reported Sandy Bauers in 2014 on behalf of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The asbestos factories of Ambler are now closed, but their toxic legacy lingers.

Ambler is in Montgomery County, which has one of the highest rates of death from asbestos-related diseases in the nation - nearly 11 fatalities a year per 100,000 people, over twice the annual average of 4.9 annual deaths per 100,000 Americans. Adjacent Delaware County has the highest asbestos mortality rate in all of Pennsylvania at 12.9 deaths per 100,000.

In Montgomery, Delaware and Philadelphia counties, nearly 3,700 people have died from asbestos-triggered diseases since 1999, according to an analysis of federal death records and lung cancer estimates by the EWG Action Fund. More than 14,200 Pennsylvanians have died from asbestos exposure during that period.

The only other states with higher death tolls from asbestos-related diseases during the same period are the much more populous Florida, with 14,228, and California, with 21,338. Asbestos, once a mainstay of manufacturing and used in thousands of consumer products, has left thousands of Pennsylvania families devastated as the lives of loved ones were cut short - many from simply going to work every day.

While the use of asbestos in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country has dropped dramatically since the 1970s, when its link to cancer became widely known, the number of deaths each year has remained steady. In fact, we are now seeing a "third wave" of victims who were likely exposed from their parents and spouses who worked around asbestos and unknowingly brought it home.

Unfortunately for the victims of today and tomorrow, Congress is considering legislation that would slow, if not stop, compensation to sick and dying Pennsylvanians. The so-called FACT Act - H.R. 526 and S. 357 - is the brainchild of multinational corporations that produced asbestos-containing products and as a result now have significant liability for the deaths and injuries they caused. Backers of the bill include Honeywell International and Koch Industries. Big insurance companies, including Nationwide and Allstate, also strongly support the proposal.

The bill would erect a series of needless and wasteful administrative and legal hurdles for both victims and the asbestos trusts set up to compensate them. The delay and the drain on the trusts' resources make it likely that many victims and their families will not see their rightful compensation before death takes its toll. Although asbestos-triggered diseases may not show up for decades after exposure, many victims die within months of diagnosis.

To add insult to injury, the legislation would force online public disclosure of victims' sensitive personal information - their full names, year of birth, work and medical histories even a portion of their Social Security numbers, putting them and heightened risk of identity theft and cyber crimes.

The deck is stacked against residents of Pennsylvania who are or will become sick from asbestos disease. Industry, led by the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has paid millions into a high-priced stable of K Street lobbyists who are working to make sure the rights of victims are thwarted while protecting the profits of the very corporations that made them sick.

Pennsylvania's congressional delegation should stand with asbestos victims and their families in opposition to the FACT Act. And any member of the delegation who votes for the legislation should be ashamed.

Note: This piece originally ran in the opinion page of the Philadelphia Daily News and at philly.com.