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Personal Injuries From Asbestos Exposure: The Wittenoom Story

The Australian construction industry was once one of the biggest asbestos consumers in the world. From 1945 to 1980, asbestos was a staple construction material in homes and industrial buildings and was a principal ingredient in cement, insulation, pipes, paint and many more materials. Some Australian towns thrived from this industry, but when the health risks from asbestos became clear, it was places like Wittenoom that paid the price. Learn more about the effect the asbestos industry had on Wittenoom, and how the people of the town suffered as a result of their exposure to this toxic material.

Asbestos mining in Wittenoom

Wittenoom lies within the Hamersley Range, 687 miles from the Western Australian city of Perth. In the 1930s, the town was an active part of the mining industry, and in the 1950s and 1960s, Wittenoom became the only supplier in Australia for blue asbestos.

The blue asbestos industry brought wealth to the town of Wittenoom, and the mineral dominated the local area. Two asbestos mines operated in the town, with the cargo transported to the coast at Port Samson in open trucks. In Port Samson, the mineral waited in large storage sheds before the manufacturer shipped half overseas, allowing the Australian construction industry to use the remaining blue asbestos.

The dangers of blue asbestos

Asbestos is actually a term that applies to a group of six unique substances, all of which contain a certain type of fibre. The recognised asbestos types are:

  • Chrysotile
  • Amosite or brown asbestos
  • Crocidolite or blue asbestos
  • Tremolite
  • Anthophyllite
  • Actinolite

Blue asbestos is the most dangerous form because the fibres within the substance are particularly thin. If these fibres become airborne, it's easy for people to inhale them, where they then lodge in the lining of the lungs. To make matters worse, the fibres do not easily break down, which can then cause several life-threatening illnesses.

Research shows that 18 percent of blue asbestos miners die from mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a fast-spreading cancer that can take 30 or 40 years to develop. Australia has one of the highest incidence rates of mesothelioma in the world because of the blue asbestos mining that once took place. It's not just miners who were at risk. People living near the mines and the families of miners were all at risk due to asbestos exposure.

Other conditions associated with asbestos exposure include benign pleural disease, asbestosis and lung cancer. Many people die from these conditions, while other patients suffer life-changing injuries and disabilities.

The demise of Wittenoom

While the asbestos mines were active in Wittenoom, 20,000 people lived in the town. A senior physician started to visit the area in the late 1950s after health concerns about asbestos exposure began to increase. In 1962, the mines' medical officer diagnosed the first case of mesothelioma. He also published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia, stating that asbestos exposure had caused the disease.

The mine owners failed to take any action to deal with the increasing health complaints. In the end, the company behind the mines decided to end production, and the mines closed in 1966. The state government began to phase down the town in 1978 because of the health risks in the area, and an official report recommended that residents leave the area as soon as possible.

Over time, buildings closed and the government demolished large parts of the town. The government buried a massive amount of contaminated material in a local gorge in 2004, and the Minister for Regional Development finally degazetted the town in 2007. The site remains a major health risk, although a steering committee and group of industry experts continue to consider how to deal with the contamination.

The human cost

According to the Western Australia government, thousands of people from Wittenoom have already died from asbestos-related diseases. These fatalities include miners, their families and even visitors to the town. Wind and water erosion continue to disperse the fibres, and visitors can even inhale the fibres when walking or driving through the area. In July 2013, only three people continued to live in the town.

Former residents and their families have since taken legal action as a result of the injuries that asbestos exposure in Wittenoom caused. A former Australian MP decided to sue the Australian government and the mines' owners in 2013, after doctors diagnosed him with mesothelioma. The company behind the mines continues to deal with liabilities from Wittenoom. The Australian Asbestos Network estimates that these liabilities continue to cost the mining company $30-50 million a year.

While the town of Wittenoom is now largely a ghost town, the legacy of its inhabitants continues through the Australian courts. Some experts believe that as many as 60,000 people will die from blue asbestos exposure in Wittenoom by 2030, creating a significant liability for the company that operated the mines.

If you have ever been exposed to asbestos in any form, contact a personal injury lawyer for help getting the compensation you deserve.