Blue Gold

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…Refusing To Escape The Dangers Of Asbestos

Predictions for asbestos related deaths suggest the statistic will continue to increase until 2020. In Australia, three people have decided to take their chances by refusing to leave an asbestos riddled mining town called Wittenoon, where even the roads are paved with blue asbestos.

Helen Grady, specialist Industrial Disease and Asbestos Claims solicitor, investigates the odd behaviour and explains the dangers faced by the three residents.

Mining For Blue Gold

The town of Wittenoon in the 1950s was buzzing with migrant miners and their families looking for consistent work. Built at the mouth of Wittenoon Gorge in 1946, the town was next to a quarry of extremely hazardous blue asbestos. At the time, this asbestos was mostly used to insulate steam engines. In 1966 the mine closed and Wittenoon had a total population of 20,000.

It is now known that the blue asbestos (also known as crocidolite asbestos), that the miners had been quarrying, is actually one of the most dangerous types of asbestos. The fibres of this particular asbestos are extremely thin and needle sharp, making lung clearance difficult.  All asbestos fibres are easily inhaled as one fibre can take hours to fall from ceiling height to floor level and out of harms way.  Thus the fibres, once disturbed, tend to remain airborne for a long time and coupled with the difficulty of naturally clearing themselves from our lungs, gives rise to a very worrying environment where extra care is required at all times.

Cases Of Mesothelioma

Sadly, in 1961, the first miner from Wittenoom was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a life-ending disease that can almost always be traced back to exposure to asbestos. Asbestos’ hazardous properties had been realised in the early 30s in the UK and legislation to protect workers was enacted in 1931.  However, the popularity of the building material meant that the mining of it continued. So, the miners of Wittenoon continued to mine the product for a further 5 years after the first case of mesothelioma was reported.

Once the mine closed, the town began to disintegrate as the migrant workers set off to find work elsewhere. But the damage had already been done.

Playing In The ‘Snow’

Miners had competitions to see who could fill up a 40 gallon drum with asbestos first and children would play in the blue powder as if it were snow. Wittenoon’s roads were literally paved with asbestos.

Over 2,000 deaths have been reported to have had a connection with the asbestos mined and found in Wittenoon, to include women laundering their husband’s work overalls and contaminating themselves when shaking out the dust.

Not Going Anywhere

Despite this shocking statistic, three residents of Wittenoon refuse to leave. The Western Australian Government even struck the town off the map in 2007 to deter any tourists or visitors and a former state MP called it, “extraordinarily dangerous… the most contaminated place on the planet.”

The three residents who remain have been offered monitory support in order to make a new life elsewhere but they claim the beauty and tranquillity of the town makes them reluctant to leave.

The postal service to Wittenoon was stopped in 2007 and the nearest shop is 130km away. The electricity was turned off a number of years ago, but the residents remain stubborn through the use of home generators.

Helen comments:

“This is a harrowing tale and a good example of being in the know of clear medical knowledge and evidence and yet failing to act quickly.”

“It is interesting to note that despite the medical knowledge that asbestos was extremely dangerous for workers and their families, the information was not used to fully protect workers in the UK until the 80s.”

“I hope that this story raises awareness of the many thousands of workers in Australia and the UK where Governments and employers were slow to act and the repercussions have been profound.”

Written by Helen Grady.

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