Today, Australians are all too aware of the dangers of asbestos. A ban on the use, manufacture and importing of the substance has been in affect for close to 15 years and strict regulations control its removal and disposal. However, Australia hasn’t always been so savvy when it comes to asbestos and you don’t have to dig too deep into our nation’s past to uncover our now faded enthusiasm for the deadly mineral.
A prime example of this is the former Australian mining town of Wittenoom. Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once home to a booming asbestos mine, famous for its blue crocidolite asbestos.
Mining operations first began in the region in the 1930’s, although it wasn’t until 1943 that a blue asbestos mine was opened in Wittenoom Gorge. Fuelled by the increased demand for asbestos for gas masks and tanks for the war effort, the mine initially flourished, employing 7,000 men and women during its 26 years of operation. As well as those that worked for the mine, an estimated 13,000 people lived in the town and were in some way dependant on the revenue the mine created.
Although the health dangers of asbestos were somewhat known at this time, they were easy to disregard when it was asbestos putting food on the table and money in pockets. This dilemma, and the plight of Wittenoom in general, was the subject of the 1990 Midnight Oil album, Blue Sky Mine; its titular track featuring the lyrics ‘But if I work all day at the Blue Sky Mine there’ll be food on the table tonight’.
If you lived in Wittenoom, exposure to blue asbestos was inevitable. Piles of asbestos tailings were dumped in gorges and those that weren’t dumped were used in everything from roads, to pipelines, and even in children’s sandpits. It is believed that roughly 2000 former Wittenoom residents and mining workers have already died from asbestos related health problems.
For this reason the town began to be scaled down in 1978 with residents being offered money to leave their homes. In 2007 Wittenoom was officially taken off the map and degazetted by the state government. Today it is largely a ghost town, with only three permanent residents who stay on despite government warnings.
Wittenoom remains a foul mark on Australia's history, a costly tragedy that can never be erased. Fortunately, today in Australia the health risks of asbestos are very well known and strict legal framework is in place to prevent its mining and use.
However, this is not the case all over the world, and countries like Russia still mine and use huge amounts of asbestos.
Join us next time when we take a look at another very different asbestos mining town. A town so in love with the substance it is named after it: the town of Asbest in Russia.