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Asbestos Mining in Australia

Date Added: December 05, 2011 05:46:31 PM
Author: rhiannonvdm
Category: Respiratory Disorders Asbestosis-Mesothelioma

            A complete ban on asbestos was introduced in Australia in 1991, though some materials that were in storage were still being utilized in the years that followed. Queensland began regulating asbestos removal in 2005, and those that remove and haul it must acquire a licence beforehand.

            Before the dangers and health risks associated with asbestos were discovered, however, the town of Wittenoom in Western Australia became home to one of the nation's largest asbestos mines and, eventually, one of its greatest industrial disasters.

             Prior to the second world war, asbestos was imported from South Africa and Canada. The presence of blue asbestos was found in the Hamersley Ranges in 1917, but the mining of crocidolite (or blue asbestos) did not begin in Wittenoom until 1937. The area surrounding Wittenoom was once pastoral in use, however, Lang Hancock, a member of one of the state's oldest land owning families, saw the potential in mining asbestos locally. The British needed the asbestos for us in gas masks, and when the second worl war began it was necessary for tanks, plans, helmets, and battelships. In 1947, a company town was built around the mine, Wittenoom Gorge, and during the 1950's and early 60's it was Australia's only supplier of blue asbestos. A total of 166,000 tonnes were mined between the years 1943 to 1966 when the town was closed due to growing health concerns. Workers mined in poorly ventilated conditions without proper equipment to lessen the inhalation of airborne asbestos fibres.

            The first case of asbestosis in Wittenoom had occured back in 1946, though it was not conclusively diagnosed until a later date. Two years later a government medical officer who visited the mine warned against the dust levels within the mine and the lack of extractors at the location. He stated that asbestos was highly dangerous and that the men who came in contact with it would begin to suffer from chest disease within six months.

            In the years that followed, several different studies were carried out throughout the town and the mine itself, a few concluded that the conditions were overly dusty and a health risk to the workers and the town at large. Until, in 1978, the government began the phasing out of Wittenoom. The residents were ordered to leave the area, but a number of them remained behind, defying the govermental orders.

            In 2006, the government offical turned off the power grid in Wittenoom. A report made by consultants in the same year evaluated the risks pertaining to asbestos contamination there and in surrounding areas, finding the danger to be medium to tourists and extreme to residents. It was later deemed that the presence of free asbestos fibres in soil samples taken at the site presented a public health risk. It was thereby put on the list of contaminated sites under the Contaminated Sites Act of 2003.

            Between the years of 1943 and 1966, the Australian Blue Asbestosis Company had 6500 men and 500 women in its employ. By 1986,  eighty-five of them had died from malignant mesothelioma, as a direct result of their exposure to the asbestos mine. Using mathematical modelling, it is determined that approximately 700 of these workers will be effected by mesothelioma by the year 2020.