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REVIEW of Focus 43
Wittenoom - A Town Born To Die

Back in 1930 a prized commodity was discovered in the remote Pilbara region of Northwest Australia. Deposits of white asbestos were found on Frank Wittenoom's outback Mulga Downs station. He and his partner Langley (Lang) Hancock began mining operations and neither they, nor their workers, realised the danger of ingesting dust and fibres into the body. Then Lang came across a chunk of blue asbestos; and knowing its value at the time, he pegged a claim and the pair set up another operation which would eventually make them millionaires.

Workers needed accommodation close to the mine; so a number of houses were built near the operation. The town of Wittenoom had been born. Although the work was dusty and hot, many were still prepared to do it; especially as employment of any kind during that time of the Great Depression was hard to come by. Some even came from Europe where things were particularly bad; and over a period of 23 years, 7,000 workers put up with the uncomfortable conditions. None, it would seem, were aware that the air they were breathing was deadly. How could it be when asbestos was sanctioned as quite safe by governments and industry alike? It was used in building materials, clothing, upholstery and household appliances. Its fire retardant quality made it ideal for many things, including gas masks, helmets, tanks and battleships during WWII. It was surely as safe as the houses in which they lived. Both assumptions would eventually be proved false.

By 1951, the town of Wittenoom had grown to 150 residences housing a population of 500; and it would continue this way for another 15 years. Undeniable evidence revealed that ill-health and deaths were a result of the deadly fibres of asbestos; dictating that mining and usage of the substance should cease. 1966 saw an end to a lucrative business partnership; but some of the residents decided to stay anyway. Government pressure for them to abandon their town increased over the coming years until it was officially degazzeted in 2007. Road signs had been removed; as had the location of the town on maps. As far as prospective visitors were concerned, Wittenoom wasn't even a ghost town: it had simply ceased to exist.

To read the complete article or download the PDF of Focus 43 click here

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