Health: The devastating affects of asbestos

Photo / Getty
Photo / Getty

A study following the affects of asbestos mining on a small Western Australian township has revealed those who grew up in the town are dying or suffering from chronic diseases at a rate well above the average population.

The town of Wittenhoom was just 1.6km from where blue asbesotos was mined and was closed in 1966 after airborne fibres in dust from mining operations were found to cause malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other serious diseases.

Victims who have become known as "Wittenhoom kids", are the subject of the study, the first to look at the long-term health of children who were exposed to asbestos at Wittenoom.

Conducted by researchers from The University of Western Australia for the university's affiliated Insititute for Medical Research, findings have revealed alarming statistics.

Boys who spent their childhood and early teenage years in Wittenoom during the years asbestos was mined (1943-1966) now have excessive death rates and elevated rates of various cancers and diseases of the circulatory and nervous system.

The boys have had a 50-83 per cent increased chance of dying from any cause while Wittenhoom girls have had a 20-47 per cent greater risk of dying and been more likely to develop mesothelioma, ovarian and brain cancers.

A leading researcher of the study. published in the Americal Journal of Industrial Medicine, says even when the population of the town grew and was moved 12pm away in 1947, tailings from the asbestos mine were used throughout the new settlement.

"These tailings, rich in crocidolite fibres, were used to pave roads, footpaths, parking areas, the local racecourse and school playgrounds. They were even used in people's backyards, where, of course, children often played.

"These "Wittenoom kids" are now reaching the age where chronic adult diseases are becoming more prevalent and many have died," says Associate professor Alison Reid.

A total of 2460 former Wittenoom children were documented to have been exposed to blue asbestos before the age of 15.

The median age of their first exposure was at three years of age.

Of the people studied, 63 per cent were either born in Wittenoom or had moved to the mining town by the time they were three years old.

The vast majority (93.5 per cent) left Wittenoom by the time they were 16, so were exposed to asbestos only during their childhoods.

By the end of 2007, 228 former residents had died from a range of causes. By the end of 2009, there were 215 cases of cancer in 207 individuals.

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