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Asbestos Mines – How Asbestos Devastated an Australian Town for Decades

Now a famous ghost town, Wittenoom was once a bustling mining town filled with families and opportunists looking for work. At its height of popularity, more than 2,000 people resided in the town, citing that the ‘beautiful blue sky, burnt soil and gorgeous hills’ offered an unrivalled atmosphere of tranquillity. It would take twenty years for the asbestos mines to be shut down, and another forty years until the town was completely wiped off the map.

During the 1940s, Wittenoom saw scores of young men travelling to town with their families to pick up work in the asbestos mines. As asbestos was regularly used in construction materials, the mine saw tonnes exported throughout the duration of its opening – up to 165,000 over the course of the mine. So prevalent and normal was the use of asbestos in Wittenoom that it could be seen in everything from paving roads and building houses to blanketing school ovals to protect children’s feet from the heat. What’s more, is that the asbestos mined was the most dangerous kind on the planet – blue asbestos (Asbestos crocidolite). Characterised by its tiny, needle like fibres, asbestos crocidolite was deemed the worst kind of asbestos as the fibres could easily attach to the inside of people’s lungs, even more so than amosite (brown asbestos) which has curly fibres.

Though workers in the asbestos mines were the frontline for asbestos related disease, the particles quickly spread through wind and getting attached to workers clothing. This meant that no one was exempt from breathing in the dust, as it permeated every inch of the town.

Though mesothelioma can take up to forty years to appear, it’s recorded that people were becoming aware of the dangers of asbestos as early as the 1920s. A government officer named Professor Eric Saint is alleged to have warned the town in 1948, raising his concerns of the risks for many years to no avail. The mining would continue until 1966, when safety concerns and a decline in asbestos production would see the mine closed.

The aftermath

Though the figure is not exactly known, it’s estimated up to 2000 Wittenoom residents have died from asbestos crocidolite exposure. One such resident, Bronwen Duke, lost 13 members of her family to the deadly mineral, including her mother, father, grandparents, and brother. It’s also devastated the indigenous community, with the Pilbara’s Aboriginal people having the highest mesothelioma mortality rate in the world. A fast moving and virulent cancer, those diagnosed with mesothelioma is almost always fatal and has a life span of six months, with most of the time spent being slowly asphyxiated.

Though the Wittenoom mine was shut down in 1966, residents continued to live there until 2006, when the government intervened and shut down the power. Most properties were voluntarily sold to the government, and the remaining who refused to sell were eventually forced under the Wittenoom Closure Bill 2019.

Since it’s closure, Wittenoom has unfortunately become somewhat of a tourist hotspot, for daredevils who are eager to explore the town’s deadly history. Though Wittenoom has been completely wiped off the map, thrill seekers are still able to find the town by visiting Karijini National Park, ignoring the hordes of warning signs telling them to go back.

We hope our article on asbestos mines have given you more information on the history of asbestos in Australia. If you suspect your home has asbestos, contact Myers Asbestos Removal services for asbestos testing services today. Remember, there’s no such thing as a safe level of asbestos, so be sure to give us a call on 0412 314 588  if your home was built prior to 2003.

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