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History of Asbestos Mining Blamed for Mesothelioma Epidemic

history of asbestos mining

Residents of Western Australia are still paying the price for the history of asbestos mining in the region.

A new report from the University of Western Australia focuses on people in the region of the now-closed Wittenoom asbestos mine. 

The report blames the mine and its products for an “ongoing epidemic of mortality from lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma”. 

Australia’s Sad History of Asbestos Mining

Asbestos is a mineral once prized for its strength and abundance. It was used around the world in thousands of products, including many construction materials. 

Australia has a long history of asbestos mining and exportation. The country was once one of the world’s top producers of asbestos. The Australian Blue Asbestos Company in Wittenoom was the country’s biggest mine.

The Wittenoom mine produced crocidolite or “blue asbestos”. Crocidolite is one of several varieties of asbestos. They differ in the size and shape of their fibers. All types of asbestos are linked to pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma. 

Wittenoom’s Crocidolite Test Cases

The Wittenoom mine closed in 1966. Because of its history of asbestos mining, Wittenoom is now an ideal place to study mesothelioma.  Mine employees and local residents are the subjects of many scientific studies.

For the latest report, researchers studied the two groups separately. Researchers tracked them through hospital, death, and cancer records. The process produced a picture of the “evolution of asbestos-related disease”. 

Researchers also determined each individuals’ likely level of asbestos exposure. Then they compared these levels to mesothelioma incidence. This allowed them to estimate an “exposure-response” relationship. 

“There has been an ongoing epidemic of mortality from lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma,” they report. In fact, Western Australia has the highest per capita rate of death from malignant mesothelioma in the world. 

The region’s history of asbestos mining is the culprit. 

US Not Exempt from a History of Asbestos Mining

The US has its own tragic history of asbestos mining. The town of Libby, Montana is often compared to Wittenoom. 

Libby was home to the W.R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine. Vermiculite is a different mineral. But the vermiculite mined in Libby was contaminated with asbestos. Hundreds of Libby residents have died and thousands more are sick with lung cancer, asbestosis, or mesothelioma. 

The mine closed in 1990 and the EPA stepped in to clean up the town in 1999. Like Wittenoom, repercussions of the history of asbestos mining in Libby can still be felt. Thousands of older American homes and buildings still contain Libby vermiculite.

“The legacy of Wittenoom has extended beyond the mine and the town and is still evident more than 50 years after the closure of the mine,” write the Australian researchers.


Musk, AW, et al, “The Wittenoom legacy”, October 31, 2019, International Journal of Epidemiology, Epub ahead of print, https://academic.oup.com/ije/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/ije/dyz204/5610558?redirectedFrom=fulltext

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