The town of Wittenoom in Western Australia was originally established in 1947 to provide accommodation for workers at the nearby crocidolite mine. But as time went on, the town grew in size. In 1951, it had a population of five hundred, and prior to its abandonment in 1966, it was home to over twenty thousand people.
Dirt extracted from the mines was used to create sandpits for the children of the town to play in, as well as greens for the town’s gold course and a “beach” next to the town’s pool. The dirt was also used to line the streets, playgrounds and footpaths of the town. Sadly, however, no resident realized the danger of what they were doing. Crocidolite is known today as “blue asbestos.” Although all types of asbestos are hazardous to human health, blue asbestos is perhaps the most dangerous, as its fibers are likely to cause malignant mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer which develops inside the linings of organs such as the lungs and heart) in people who inhale it.
Throughout much of the time that the mine was operating, concerns were constantly raised by health specialists about the effects of the asbestos on the townspeople. But these were ignored by the mine’s owners. The mine finally closed in 1966 and, at nearly the same time, several air surveys revealed that asbestos particles were present in every building of the town. Action was finally taken in 1979 when the government began winding down Wittenoom by offering to buy residents’ houses and pay for their relocation costs. Many took this offer, and left their homes to be demolished. But a small number defied this situation, and were still resident in the town as of 2006—despite the official removal of the town’s status, its removal from all road signs, and its disconnection from the country’s main electric grid.
A conservative estimate of the casualties suggests that of the twenty thousand who lived in Wittenoom, over two thousand have since died from asbestos-related illnesses. As well as this, Western Australia suffers from one of the highest rates per capita of malignant mesothelioma in the world.