Every year, asbestos exposure leads to roughly 3,000 new mesothelioma cases in the United States. But the problems associated with asbestos exposure aren’t limited to the U.S. Asbestos causes cancer and other diseases in people worldwide, and it has forced at least one town off the map.
As the New York Times recently reported, asbestos made one Australian town so toxic that government officials had to shut it down. Wittenoom was a mining town in Western Australia, but the mineral that once fueled its economy eventually brought about its demise.
A town that was literally built on asbestos
Many things can cause cancer, so you might say the biggest problem with asbestos is that manufacturers used it so extensively. For decades, manufacturers believed asbestos was a miracle mineral. Tough, resilient and fire-resistant, asbestos fibers found their way into all manner of construction materials, insulation, fire retardants, brake linings and countless other products.
This created tremendous demand for asbestos, and companies opened many, many asbestos mines in towns like Wittenoom. Mine owners didn’t always focus on safety, however. The New York Times reports that people remember aboriginal children hitching rides on the backs of trucks transporting asbestos tailings. Some children even chewed on the tailings like gum.
Eventually, manufacturers learned that asbestos caused cancer. Even so, as the Times put it, “the promise of economic development [overshadowed] emerging health concerns.” In other words, it was more profitable to keep doing business with asbestos than to worry about people’s health.
As a result of this business model, one out of ten people who lived in Wittenoom developed mesothelioma. Let’s be clear about this: Mesothelioma is a rare cancer. But the story of Wittenoom illustrates just how deadly asbestos exposure can be.
Here is a comparison of Wittenoom’s mesothelioma rate with the mesothelioma rates provided by the Centers for Disease Control and the Australian government:
- United States: From 1999 to 2018, the U.S. averaged just under 1.0 cases of mesothelioma per 100,000 people.
- Australia: 2.7 cases per 100,000.
- Wittenoom: 2,000 cases out of 20,000 historical residents. This is a staggering rate of 10% or 10,000 per 100,000 population. Ten thousand times higher than the U.S. averaged and more than 3,000 times higher than the Australian average.
Notably, these statistics don’t just show how badly asbestos destroyed the town of Wittenoom. They show how clearly the town’s destruction owed to a single, definable source. And this happened while the mining company and manufacturers already knew about the dangers of asbestos.
While manufacturers worldwide were deciding whether to continue putting people at risk, Wittenoom built golf greens with asbestos tailings. Residents used the tailings to pave their roads. They layered them on playgrounds and gardens to hold down dust. The Times reported that miners left more than three million tons of tailings in piles near the mines. From there, asbestos fibers could carry on the wind or tumble into the nearby stream and drift down to other locations.
People knew better
Eventually, the mining stopped, but the piles of asbestos remained. So did the asbestos in the roads, playgrounds, gardens, golf greens and other places throughout the city. Sixty years passed. Finally, after sixty years, the government finally stepped in to shut down the town.
The government shut off the town’s water and electricity. It tried to buy out all the residents. It removed the town from official maps. Recently, the last of the remaining residents agreed to sell their property or found themselves evicted. The government plans to bulldoze everything.
Soon, the Australian government will bury the town of Wittenoom and its toxic past. Still, the former mine owner’s daughter has already looked to mine just outside the Wittenoom contamination zone. Indeed, the Times reported that she’s already looked into the possibility of mining within the contamination zone. Perhaps she should know better than to risk people’s lives and health, but, as the Times wrote, such considerations too often get steamrolled by “the promise of economic development.”