The Pilbara region of Western Australia is one of the most beautiful regions. However, it is also one of the most dangerous regions on Earth. The culprit here is asbestos.
About eighty years ago, crocidolite or blue asbestos was discovered here leading to the establishment of extensive mines and subsequently a town for the workforce. The place is known in Australian history for being Australia’s first supplier of blue asbestos.
What is asbestos?
Asbestos is a deadly mineral whose fibers when inhaled can lead to various diseases that are both cancerous and non-cancerous. Malignant Mesothelioma is one of them. Of the estimated 20,000 people who lived and worked in Wittenoom during the life of the mines and town, more than 2,000 are believed to have so far died of asbestos-related diseases. The mines closed in 1996, but not without taking lives of a whole ten percent of residents of Wittenoom.
Although blue asbestos was first found in the area in 1917, it was prospector Lang Hancock and his partner Peter Wright who started large-scale mining of Wittenoom Gorge in 1936. Two years later, mining started in another gorge nearby. By three years, Wittenoom was producing large quantities of asbestos that were immediately of use to the British in the Second World War. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used in battleships to insulate piping, boilers, steam engines, and steam turbines. Asbestos was also used in tanks, planes, helmets and to make filters for —ironically— gas masks. Even before the war, asbestos was famous for its properties. It is highly resistant to fire, heat, electrical and chemical damage, and comes cheap, and is also known as ‘poor man’s material’ in India.
In 1943, the asbestos mine was bought by Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd (ABA). Unfortunately, the company suffered a heavy loss. The company became bankrupt with a debt of around $2.5 million.
The town of Wittenoom was established in 1947, ten kilometers from the mine. At its glory, exactly 20,000 individuals comprising of workers and their families lived there. Government health officers who went to Wittenoom not long after its establishing raised worries about dust levels in the mine and preparing plant, and cautioned the organization about the dangers of asbestos and the perils to the mineworkers and the general population living in the town.
The primary case of an asbestos related disease at Wittenoom was accounted for as right on time as 1946, in spite of the fact that it was not decisively analyzed until much later. The primary mesothelioma case was analyzed in 1962. In the last five years of the mine’s presence, more than 100 instances of lung cancer were recorded in the town.
Although the mines are gone, mountains of crocidolite still remain in the Pilbara region, spreading across the landscape by the annual floods, contaminating water sources, pastures and other inhabited areas. Even though it is known that asbestos exposure causes cancer, no stringent measures have been taken to dispose of the asbestos mounds.
Starting from 1978, the government took steps to reinstate Wittenoom by encouraging residents to relocate. But the town would officially remain open another three decades, serving as a prime tourist destination with up to 40,000 visitors a year. According to The Guardian, six residents still live in the town and are refusing to leave the ghost town.
Source – Wikipedia