The Devastating Asbestos Legacy of Wittenoom, Australia
Asbestos has been in Australia’s history for a long time. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Australia had the highest per capita use of asbestos in the world.
Tragically, this has led to Australia now having the highest incidence of mesothelioma cases per capita in the world.
More than 500 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year, and this number is set to rise. It is estimated that by 2020, 18,000 Australians will have died from mesothelioma.
A large number of these deaths will be attributed to the asbestos mining town of Wittenoom in Western Australia, which is responsible for Australia’s biggest industrial disaster to date.
Wittenoom: The Valley of Death
Located 1,417 km (880 miles) north of Perth and 460 m (1,509 feet) above sea level, the once-thriving settlement of Wittenoom sits at the heart of the Hamersley Range. It was the starting point from which people toured other gorges in the Pilbara ranges.
Past visitors to Wittenoom have described it as one of the most splendid places they have ever seen. The gorges are among the most striking and haunting to be found anywhere in the world.
Following the discovery of blue asbestos, mining began in Yampire Gorge in the 1930s. A second asbestos mine opened deep in Wittenoom Gorge in the 1940s, and the town of Wittenoom was centered at the mouth of the gorge.
The Wittenoom mine was responsible for shipping more than 150,000 tonnes (165,000 tons) of asbestos from 1943 to 1966.
Blue asbestos, also called crocidolite asbestos, is a variant of the mineral riebeckite. Out of the six types of asbestos, blue asbestos is considered by most experts to be the most deadly.
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Men, Women and Children Fall Victim
In all, around 20,000 men, women and children worked and lived in Wittenoom. Experts estimate that at least 25 percent of the people who worked in the mine will eventually die of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease.
Those who worked in the asbestos mine were not the only ones who were exposed to the deadly asbestos dust. In an endeavor to beautify the town, asbestos tailings (solid waste containing asbestos) were used in every place imaginable, including: gardens, school yards, the race track and even the airport, which created a permanent haze of dust.
Asbestos dust clung to the clothes of anyone who had been exposed to it and found its way into the residents’ homes. There have been many recorded cases of wives being diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of shaking the dust out of their husband’s work clothes before putting them into the wash.
Children Exposed to Deadly Dust in Their Own Backyard
Tragically, there was nowhere to escape the deadly asbestos dust; asbestos tailings even made their way into people’s backyards, where innocent children played, unaware that this pastime could later take their life.
My husband, Brian Kember, was one of those children. The few short months he spent there when he was a 7 years old, resulted in him being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma 45 years later. Given a prognosis of three to nine months, he survived for two years and died at the age of 54.
Brian was not the only member of his family to die of asbestos-related disease due to living in Wittenoom. Prior to Brian’s death, his father, Vic, who had worked as an engine driver at the mine site, passed away from mesothelioma. Shortly after his death, Brian’s mother, Dorrie, passed away from lung cancer. Brian’s sister, Pat, is the only remaining member of the family.
Early Warnings of Asbestos Danger Ignored
Professor Eric Saint, then a government medical officer, first warned of the dangers of asbestos at Wittenoom in 1948. He tried for many years to raise the alarm about the serious risks.
He first visited the area with the Flying Doctor service and was horrified at what he saw.
“The facts about asbestosis, the relationship, the hazardous nature of the asbestos particles, has been well known in the general literature since the mid-1920s,” he said in a TV interview in 1988. “There was an abundance of literature which made it quite clear that the asbestos particle was injurious to lung tissue and would produce asbestosis.”
He also stated that the literature available to all English-speaking countries that were involved in the mining of asbestos indicated that a proportion of those who had asbestosis would die of this disease.
Wittenoom Wiped Off the Map
1966 saw the end of asbestos mining at Wittenoom for economic reasons. In the late 1970s, the government began to close down the town of Wittenoom, as health concerns grew.
The airborne fibers in dust taken from the mining operation were found to be the cause of a number of serious diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Residents of Wittenoom received messages from the state government stating: Please leave now!
All services and utilities were discontinued. In 2007, Wittenoom was officially removed from maps and road signs. Tourists are discouraged from visiting the area.
Today, the Department of Local Government and Regional Development circulates a flier warning people not to go to Wittenoom, stating that “Visiting Wittenoom is not worth risking your life.”
The flier, which includes details about mesothelioma, graphic photos of the disease as well as a personal quote from me, gives a strong message: DO NOT GO TO WITTENOOM!
Some Residents Refuse to Leave
Despite the closure of the town, there was a lot of resistance by the residents, many of whom did not wish to leave the area. Eventually most did move on, however there are still eight remaining residents who refuse to leave the town, including the owner of a gem shop who continues to encourage tourists to the area.
This is very disturbing. No one should be encouraged to visit Wittenoom.
Despite areas still tainted with asbestos dust, Wittenoom remains a scenic area of Western Australia. Its beauty, however, will continue to be appreciated by only the few residents who remain there. For those who visited Wittenoom in the past, its beauty will be forever overshadowed by their fear of contracting asbestos-related disease at some time in the future.
Mesothelioma Risk Still High
Despite asbestos no longer being mined in Australia, the risk of asbestos-related disease remains high, and the cycle of exposure, disease and death is continuous. This is partly due to the fact that there are many old buildings, homes and fences made of asbestos that are still standing, and the gradual wear and tear on these structures increases the risk of asbestos exposure. Self-renovation of these homes and the tearing down of asbestos sheds and fences is often the cause of someone being diagnosed with mesothelioma.
The sad truth is, that because it was so widely used in the past, asbestos can be found just about anywhere, and what we do in our own backyard can result not only in our own deaths but also the death of anyone who breathes in the asbestos dust that we have created.
We can all make a difference by making ourselves aware of the asbestos hazards in our area and bringing them to the attention of companies who are trained and registered in the safe removal of asbestos.
Only when this is truly realized can we hope to rid the world of asbestos and ensure that the children of today do not become the innocent victims of tomorrow.