Risk Management (Video)

Senior biology student Shabnam Elahi traces one town’s history of toxic exposure.

Monday, December 23, 2013

By Blake Cole

(Video content is available at the bottom of the page.)

Before the risks of asbestos exposure were widely known, it was the key product of the burgeoning manufacturing industry in Ambler, Pennsylvania. But beginning in the late 19th century, the Keasbey & Mattison Company, an asbestos manufacturer, began to improperly dispose of the toxic substance. It wasn’t until the 1970s, almost a century later, that Environmental and Occupational Safety and Health legislation would finally shutter the plant.

“You still hear stories about children playing in toxic areas, and old disposal sites remain under renovation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The threat has clearly persisted well after the closing of the factory’s doors,” says senior biology student Shabnam Elahi, who, with funding from a Penn Undergraduate Climate Action Grant, participated in a community health project aimed at surveying the effects of long-term asbestos exposure.

Ambler, located just north of Philadelphia, has one of Pennsylvania’s highest rates of mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer that affects the tissue lining of internal organs and has been linked to asbestos. “In order for community members, the administration, and the EPA to address the issue,” says Elahi, “there needs to be a better understanding of the population affected.”

To that end, Elahi has investigated census records, deed chains, and old newspapers, and carried out extensive resident interviews. Using this information, she plans to develop a spatial and temporal map capturing the relationship between relative location of a residence to a contamination source and rates of mesothelioma.

“I have learned that the research process is far from clear cut and demands more than just a simple question-answer approach,” Elahi says. “Our well-being is not only influenced by our day-to-day experiences, but also shaped by our greater history of interactions with the environments and social ties that compose our communities. As a researcher you are given the freedom to explore, question, and make mistakes, and this independence has truly helped me become more aware of all the different angles from which any single question can be approached.”

Meet Shabnam below as she introduces her research at the 2013 College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate research fair: