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Plans for exhibit on asbestos industry’s impact in Ambler

Back in the 1880s, Ambler was a company town, and asbestos was the company's product.

Back in the 1880s, Ambler was a company town, and asbestos was the company's product.

It was a good place to raise a family. Work was plentiful, and asbestos manufacturer Keasbey & Mattison Co. was community-minded, constructing affordable housing and a building for a library and an opera house.

About a century later, the factory closed, leaving behind enduring concerns about the impact of asbestos on former workers, current residents, and the image of the Montgomery County borough.

Now, University of Pennsylvania researchers are using a five-year, $1.2 million National Institutes of Health grant to create an exhibit on the impact of Ambler's asbestos-manufacturing era on residents in the borough's southern and western portions.

Asbestos exposure, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says, increases the risk of developing lung disorders, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare type of cancer.

Before its health hazards were uncovered, asbestos commonly was used for insulation and industrial applications.

"There are certainly many lessons to be learned about what has happened," said Frances K. Barg, an associate professor of family medicine and community health, who is the project's lead investigator. "Telling people's stories honors the different kinds of problems they've had to overcome."

Penn announced the grant last month, but work on assembling the exhibit has only just begun.

The grant is an outgrowth of research begun a few years back by Barg and Edward Emmett, a Penn professor of occupational and environmental medicine.

Residents approached Emmett, Barg said, and started describing their social, medical, and economic concerns about asbestos. Ever since, Barg, a medical anthropologist, and others have been collecting personal stories and other information.

The exhibit will take about two years to create and will include oral histories, photographs, perhaps an original play, and interactive media to illustrate the story of asbestos in Ambler from various perspectives.

Barg and Emmett hope their work will lead residents and scientists to gain a deeper understanding of each other's viewpoints and concerns.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia will host the exhibit, which also will be online as a permanent information source.