Penn researchers get $10 million grant to study asbestos in Ambler

     Contractors remove stumps and debris along the berm of the pond at the BoRit Asbestos site in Ambler, Pa. (Image courtesy of OSC/United States Environmental Protection Agency)

    Contractors remove stumps and debris along the berm of the pond at the BoRit Asbestos site in Ambler, Pa. (Image courtesy of OSC/United States Environmental Protection Agency)

    The University of Pennsylvania has received a $10 million grant to study asbestos and its impact on the suburban community of Ambler.

    The University of Pennsylvania has received a $10 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study asbestos and its impact on the suburban community of Ambler.

    Although its asbestos factory closed decades ago, the town is now one of the EPA’s designated superfund sites and an unusually high number of residents have a rare asbestos-related cancer, mesothelioma.

    “It’s the second largest asbestos dump site in the country,” said Trevor Penning, Penn’s director of the Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology. “It covers 35 acres. For a long time, the residents of that community have been very concerned about that asbestos waste. And so each of the projects in the grant actually address the community concern.”

    The grant will fund six research projects carried out by a variety of researchers, including Ian Blair at Penn and Joseph Testa at the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

    One project will study whether plants infected with fungi can break down the mineral form of asbestos to a less toxic form.

    Other researchers plan to develop a blood test to evaluate asbestos exposure and related disease and see whether a flaxseed antioxidant prevents disease.

    All of the data will be given to Ambler residents, who have been talking with researchers about concerns and questions.

    “The real uniqueness of the grant that we have is it’s one of the very few examples whereby researchers doing environmental health have been responsive to the needs of a community whose environmental health has been challenged by an exposure,” said Penning.

    The results, he said, should also prove useful to the other asbestos cleanup sites in the United States.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.