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Insight

The legacy of asbestos

Wittenoom in Western Australia has been wiped off the Australian map but that isn’t stopping curious travellers from visiting the area. Mining of blue asbestos began in 1939 and in 1947 a company town was built for the miners and their families. The blue asbestos mining operations were managed by Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd and CSR Ltd. Blue asbestos has needle-shaped fibres which can penetrate the lung. It is harder for the body to naturally discharge these fibres, which is why it is considered the most dangerous type of asbestos.

 

In 2006 the government commissioned a report on the management of asbestos in the Wittenoom area. The report states that the waste ore which has been left after extraction of the asbestos is over 3 million tonnes and contains about 5% asbestos. At that time, up to 40 tourists were visiting the Wittenoom area a day. The tourists and others are disturbing the waste ore by driving over it and they are also visiting the gorge. The risk to tourists and aboriginal people visiting the Wittenoom gorge alone was categorized as extreme which indicates that there’s an imminent risk of exposure to harmful levels of asbestos.

The population of Wittenoom was like one big happy family and the companies organised social events for the workers and their families. In England, Cape Asbestos had a similar set up for the workers at their factories in Barking, Uxbridge and Acre Mill. Cape had a social club for the workers and family-based events such as sports days. They also held retirement parties and rewarded the workers with gifts for their long service. Children were allowed entry into the factories to visit their parents. Cape closed the Barking and Acre Mill factories in 1969 and ceased manufacturing asbestos products in 1982 even though it had been documented since the late 1800s that asbestos factory workers were developing lung diseases. There are concerns that the former factory sites are contaminated with asbestos. The Barking factory was demolished in 1970 and it is now known as Hart’s Lane Estate. There is some suggestion that the soil may be contaminated with asbestos.

These asbestos mining and manufacturing companies have left an asbestos legacy. Even though the workers were developing lung diseases, the companies neglected the risk that asbestos posed to their employees.

In Wittenoom the government has discharged their liability by placing asbestos warning signs. I am shocked that tourists and people passing through the area are ignoring the extensive asbestos warning signs and by doing so they are accepting the risk which is a worry because the latency period to develop an asbestos-related disease such as asbestosis, diffuse pleural thickening, and mesothelioma which is a terminal condition can be from as little as 10 years to 50 years.

I’ve seen the devastation that the diagnosis of an asbestos disease causes the sufferer and loved ones. I’m surprised to see comments on internet forums saying that blue asbestos is the dangerous asbestos. That is not correct. All forms of asbestos (blue, brown and white) are dangerous and inhalation of asbestos dust and fibres should be avoided at all costs. The dangers of asbestos shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Image credit: By John Hayman [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

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