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Wittenoom uninhabitable – Continues to Kill

Asbestos Awareness Week was launched by the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) in 1985, culminating each year on the last Friday of November with an Ecumenical Memorial Service, to commemorate those who have passed from entirely preventable asbestos-related diseases. The ADSA wishes to thank the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, Unions WA, and Master Builders Association for supporting its lifesaving work this year.

ADSA’s theme for Asbestos Awareness Week this year is remembering those who have fallen from the deadly asbestos fibres from Wittenoom.

According to ADSA CEO Melita Markey, with the Wittenoom Closure Bill passing through the lower house of the Parliament of Western Australia and with good expectations of it passing the upper house, “it is finally acknowledgement that Wittenoom is a contaminated site, unfit for human habitation”.

“With this done, we can now focus our resources on addressing the issues of:

1. A lasting memorial to those who have lost their lives from exposure to the deadly blue asbestos fibres in Wittenoom
2. Wittenoom tourism
3. Wittenoom cleanup

“For many years we have focused on raising awareness of the dangers asbestos exposure to workers and home renovators. Now we are facing a terrifying death toll from the tourists and visitors to Wittenoom over the last 40 years, not just West Australians but also our interstate and international visitors,” said Ms Markey.

“Through social media monitoring over the past year, we have discovered that despite four decades of warnings, our younger generation is unaware of the very real dangers of blue asbestos fibres in Wittenoom and the surrounding region.”

“Wittenoom is Australia’s worst industrial disaster and it continues to kill,” said Ms Markey.

According to Ms Markey, this Asbestos Awareness Week is especially poignant given the recent loss of Professor Bill Musk AM.

“Earlier this month, we sadly lost our esteemed respiratory specialist and epidemiologist, Professor Bill Musk.”

“Prof Musk led the original investigation into the Wittenoom cohort’s occupational exposure, providing guidelines to protect workers from deadly asbestos cancers. He championed Wittenoom asbestos research, while big business hoped it would remain a ghost town, along with its residents.”

“Prof Musk has been a friend to the ADSA, supporting our work and our members for almost 40 years. He was committed to public health and the role it must play in protecting the life of all Australians.”

“In honour of his enormous contribution, we are proud to launch a PhD Scholarship in Prof Musk's name to ensure we continue his tradition of a commitment to workers and public health safety in Western Australia.”

“We need to raise $360,000 to cover the PhD research costs of a respiratory clinician/scientist over three years.”

The recipient’s research will be managed through The University of Western Australia via The National Centre for Asbestos-Related Diseases (NCARD) and The Institute of Respiratory Health (IRH).

Asbestos-related diseases cause approximately 4,000 deaths a year in Australia, with one person dying every 12 hours from mesothelioma.

“This more than highlights the need for ongoing, committed Western Australian asbestos diseases research funding to the NCARD and the IRH.”

“Given the number of new cases from non-occupational exposure, it is of significant concern that funding has been cut in recent years,” said Ms Markey.

According to the ADSA, it’s important for all Australians to note that it is the microscopic asbestos fibres they can’t see that can cause the most harm.

“This is especially true of the blue asbestos in the Wittenoom area. People think if they stay away from the mountains of asbestos tailings or wear a Covid mask, that they’re protected – they are not,” said Ms Markey.

As part of Asbestos Awareness Week, the ADSA is hosting its 26th annual Ecumenical Memorial Service in remembrance of those who have died from asbestos diseases – 930am on Friday 26 November at the Redemptorist Monastery, 190 Vincent Street North Perth. The event will also be live-streamed on Facebook for anyone unable to attend the service – www.facebook.com/AsbestosDiseasesAus.

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For all Media Enquiries:
Estelle Buzzard, Buzz Communications
0437888019 / Estelle@buzzcommunications.com.au

For a Screening Appointment, call ADSA on 1800 646 690
For any Workplace Concerns, contact WorkSafe on 1300 307 877
To donate to the ADSA Prof Musk PhD Scholarship, visit www.asbestosdiseases.org.au/donations
To RSVP to the Ecumenical Memorial Service, call ADSA on 9344-4077 or email ecumenical@asbestosdiseases.org.au
To sign the petition for permanent memorials, visit www.change.org/WittenoomMemorial

Please Do Not Visit Wittenoom – It Is Not Safe

The Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia (ADSA) has a launched a community education campaign to discourage visitors to the closed mining town of Wittenoom, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

“Sadly, we know the death toll from Wittenoom won’t stop, until the visitors stop,” said ADSA CEO Melita Markey.

“After disturbing images were flashed across social media of ‘adventure tourists’ playing in the deadly dust of Wittenoom, we decided to monitor this behaviour to develop a communications strategy that would get the message through that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, especially in relation to contracting incurable mesothelioma cancer.”

“It appears that many people today are unaware of Wittenoom’s legacy – that it continues to kill,” said Ms Markey.

Western Australia has one of the highest incidences of malignant mesothelioma in the world per capita. Across the country, one person dies every 12 hours from mesothelioma.

Ms Markey acknowledged that residents and tourists alike are keen to explore the Pilbara especially during wildflower season. Based on our research demonstrating multiple social media posts each week, it is clear that tourists, photographers, campers and even young families, are still visiting Wittenoom on a daily basis.

“The CSR Wittenoom Mine and Mill is the greatest example of workplace negligence in Australia, and second in the world to date,” said Ms Markey.

“Wittenoom was established as a blue asbestos mining town in 1937. Despite health warnings as early as 1948, it continued to operate until 1966, killing thousands of workers, their families and town visitors.”

“The contamination of town and its surrounding gorges continues to kill Traditional Owners and visitors to the region,” said Ms Markey.

As outlined by the Hon Alison Xamon MLC in her 2018 Parliamentary Speech, asbestos had been used primarily in WA’s building and manufacturing industries since the 1920s. From 1943 to 1966 more than 20,000 people lived and worked at Wittenoom.

In 1993, it was estimated that 40,000 tourists were still visiting the area. This led concerned members of parliament to establish an inquiry into Wittenoom and Tourism. A Report tabled in 1994, by the then MLA Larry Graham, found that Wittenoom was contaminated; 34 recommendations were subsequently made including ‘cleaning up the township and surrounding areas’.

“The report did not gain traction and today the town and surrounding areas are so contaminated, we are potentially looking at new generation asbestos diseases victims.”

“It’s important to note that it is the microscopic fibres that you can’t see, that cause the most harm. People think if they stay away from the mountains of asbestos tailings or wear a Covid mask, that they’re protected – they are not,” said Ms Markey.

Fibres lodge, in the pleura of the lungs and/or in the gut if ingested, for decades, until mutations occur causing asbestos related cancer.

“These diseases are preventable but for profit, indifference and the lack of corporate governance in allowing CSR to close the mine without cleaning up the environment,” said Ms Markey.

The thousands of victims and their families of the Wittenoom preventable asbestos tragedy have never been formally recognised. The ADSA is currently hosting an online petition for a permanent memorial to be erected in Karijini National Park with the names of the thousands of Wittenoom workers, residents, traditional owners and their family members who lost their lives to asbestos-related diseases.

As the time between initial asbestos exposure and the onset of symptoms is usually 20 to 50 years, ADSA will also be allocating space on the memorials for the hundreds, even thousands, of victims that have yet to be diagnosed.

According to Ms Markey, the memorial will serve a dual purpose:

  1. Acknowledgement of the sacrifice of these lives in the desire for WA mining development
  2. A meaningful deterrent for those tempted to visit Wittenoom

“So these September school holidays, please do not take your family to Wittenoom. There are lots of much safer camping grounds near beautiful gorges and watering holes in the Karijini National Park.”

“If you’re looking for some family fun closer to Perth, the town of York is hosting more than 100 family-friendly events over the two-week holidays and they have spectacular wildflowers on display at this time of year,” said Ms Markey.

To sign ADSA’s petition for permanent memorials in Perth and the Pilbara, please visit www.change.org/WittenoomMemorial.

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From Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia CEO, Melita Markey:

We are very saddened to hear of the suffering and challenges facing the residents of Kalbarri and Northampton in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia, following the destruction caused by Cyclone Seroja.

We are also further distressed, on behalf of the residents, that there is no clear Asbestos Disaster Mitigation Action Plan already in operation.

As a country, we have many asbestos fibro buildings throughout rural and regional Australia. It is time to develop a National Asbestos Disaster Removal team. Hopefully this is something our Premier can discuss with the Prime Minister while he’s in Perth. This team would be well trained and resourced, ready to be sent anywhere with military precision, to rapidly assess and clean-up affected areas including decontaminating surrounding soil and environment.

This is not an isolated occurrence. A lot of lessons can be learned from Cyclone Tracy, which flattened Darwin in 1974; numerous devastating cyclones in QLD; the bushfire which destroyed Yarloop; and the recent bushfires in the hills of Perth, and those in NSW last year. Asbestos contamination was a large part of the clean up issues in these disasters.

Our organisation has received queries and we reiterate there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres. However, it is shown that it is usually through prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres that the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease increases. For example, those working with asbestos, those washing clothes covered in asbestos, or young kids playing in asbestos. However, we do have exceptions to this and this is why we urge caution. We are led to believe this is due to the extensive use of deadly blue asbestos (crocodile) products mined and manufactured in Western Australia.

Asbestos diseases have a long latency period in developing and this is why we are now seeing patients who were exposed or assisted in the clean up of Darwin many years after Cyclone Tracy. Darwin was littered with destroyed asbestos fibro cement buildings. We do not want to see residents 20-40 years from now with symptoms because clean-ups were not done to the highest epidemiological and environmental standards. We’ve learnt there are can be no shortcuts. As the current pandemic has shown us, when you do take shortcuts, there are consequences in human lives.

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