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Written on 12th January 2016

History of Wittenoom & asbestos

The town of Wittenoom is based in Western Australia. In the 1930s mining began in the town and in the 1950s, and early 1960s, Wittenoom was mining blue asbestos.  Indeed, Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of blue asbestos at the time.

The blue asbestos/crocidolite mines caused the town to boom in the 1950s when a number of the residents were local miners. Nowadays it is much more of a ghost town. Although, it still remains a popular camp site for people from surrounding mining towns.

The mining of blue asbestos was shut down in 1966 but, perhaps most surprisingly, not all the residents moved on and there are still people living in the town.

Why would anyone live in Wittenoom?

When I first heard about Wittenoom I could not believe that anyone would still be living in an area so riddled with asbestos. But there are in fact a small number of residents who are refusing to leave the town, despite the great risks presented to them from living in such a place.

Properties in the town include a former shop and café and a number of residential houses. Despite the fact that there are no utilities provided to the town, the residents are so keen to stay in their homes that they use generators and solar panels to power their kitchen goods.

Some of the residents have even forgone a number of home comforts in a bid to remain in their properties.

You might therefore question whether they are aware of the risks and throwing caution to the wind, or whether another reason has led them to live in such a dangerous place. They refuse to give up their properties, despite the government’s insistence that the town needs to be decontaminated.

The town’s residents are well aware of the risks of asbestos, having heard plenty of accounts of people developing mesothelioma from both working and living in the town. Despite the fact that their properties are worth nothing, they consider it still to be a beautiful area and their home. This seems to be the main reason surrounding their refusal to leave.

What is the Australian government doing?

I was also astounded that stronger action had not been taken by the Australian government to force the residents to move to safer, decontaminated areas.

The Western Australian government is proposing to pass legislation in order to evict the last six residents who are currently refusing to leave the town, but in my opinion this cannot come soon enough.

The residents must no doubt realise that they are putting themselves in danger, with the town being connected to a death toll of more than 2,000 cancer deaths.

I think it is clear that no matter how beautiful your surroundings, or indeed the length of time you have lived in an area, the risk to your health must be taken seriously, particularly when we are considering such a deadly substance as asbestos.

The existing mine was buried in 2004 together with 400,000 cubic metres of heavily contaminated material. Any plans to decontaminate the site are being delayed and prevented by the remaining residents as any such work would disturb the asbestos fibres.

In the meantime, people are continuing to use the area as a campsite maybe knowing, or not knowing, the great risk which they are posing to their health.

As someone who spends my day assisting those who have been given the devastating diagnosis of mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases, I find it astounding that anyone would choose to live in an area so heavily contaminated with blue.