Health risks in Wittenoom
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In 1978, the State Government embarked on a process to phase down the Town of Wittenoom, because of concerns over health risks due to the presence of airborne asbestos fibres of respirable size.
The phasing down has been accelerated in recent years, and a recent report undertaken by independent consultants GHD and Parsons Brinckerhoff has underlined the need to bring the process to its conclusion. The report revealed that there is currently a medium to extreme risk to most people who use the area, including tourists.
Asbestos refers to a group of fibrous mineral silicates that occur naturally in various rock formations. Once valued for its insulating and chemical resisting properties, asbestos was used in building materials, paper and textile products, and friction products such as break linings for vehicles.
However, it was later discovered that inhalation of asbestos fibres is associated with fatal diseases, as listed below.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs, but can also occur in similar linings of the abdomen or heart. After a prolonged period, affected cells may start growing without restraint, forming a malignant tumour that can destroy these vital organs.
The time between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of mesothelioma can be as long as 20 to 40 years, or even longer.
Asbestosis is a chronic lung disease resulting from continuing inhalation of asbestos fibres and progressive scarring of the lung tissue. It produces shortness of breath and increases the risk of dangerous lung infection, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.
Lung cancer is a malignant tumour of lung tissue, most commonly the bronchial lining. It is capable of invading surrounding tissue, and spreading to other parts of the body. Its occurrence is often linked to smoking as well as asbestos exposure.
The time between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of lung cancer can be as long as 20 to 30 years.
The asbestos mining operations in the Wittenoom area and the resulting exposures to asbestos have already resulted in hundreds of fatalities among miners and other residents of the town. Asbestos fibres are widely disseminated in the Wittenoom area, posing a risk to people visiting the area. These fibres readily migrate as a result of wind and flooding, and human activities such as the movement of vehicles.
To protect travellers, the State Government has warned against all travel to the Wittenoom area.
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