Thousands of people each year are diagnosed with and die from asbestos related diseases such as mesothelioma in the United States each year. But how does that compare to the rest of the world? Even though asbestos is still legal in the United States, the United States’ incidence rate for mesothelioma is not the highest in the world. This is because of a small town in Australia, which not only was built upon the mining of asbestos, but mined one of the most deadly forms of asbestos in existence: Crocidolite, or blue asbestos.
Wittenoom, Australia, a town north-north-east of Perth in the Pilbara region, was once home to 20,000 people between 1943 and 1966. The Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR) began mining blue asbestos in 1943 and employed over 7,000 men and women for 23 years. Crocidolite is considered the most deadly form of asbestos because the fibers are so thin, which makes it easier to inhale. Studies have shown that up to 18 percent of those who worked with blue asbestos died from mesothelioma, or other asbestos related diseases. Because of this, the town of Wittenoom has the world’s worst mesothelioma rate.
Studies done by the University of Western Australia have confirmed that the Aboriginal population dies of mesothelioma at a rate that is more than double the rate of people who live in the United Kingdom. The mine itself, in addition to having the most deadly form of asbestos, was dangerous and hazardous to all that worked in it. The mine was poorly ventilated, and when temperature rose to over 100 degrees in the area, the heat was trapped. The poor ventilation also didn’t help the fact the asbestos dust and fibers were continually floating around, with nowhere to go, and the air became thick and heavy.
Wittenoom is now a ghost town and has been since 1966. Scientists have tested the area and found that asbestos fibers are still found today in the majority of the town – not just the area in and around the mine. Wittenoom’s status as a town was removed and has been taken off of most maps. According to the 2015 census, 6 people still reside there; despite the warnings.
Mesothelioma Incidence Rates Around the World
The number of mesothelioma rates in the United States has declined drastically since restrictions on asbestos consumption began in the early 1970s. This resulted in mesothelioma incidences potentially having reached their peak in 2010. Unfortunately, other countries like Australia, Japan, and Italy are expected to peak in the coming years because of factors like the type of asbestos mined and when it was stopped. Japan is projected to experience a steady climb of mesothelioma victims until 2027. While other countries like the United States began slowing down asbestos imports in the 1970s, Japan’s asbestos import had actually peaked around that time, and continued to do so until 1988; only 28 years ago. Italy used asbestos extensively up until 1992, and now their mesothelioma incidence rate isn’t expected to peak until 2024.
The rate of incidence for mesothelioma is also higher in developing countries. India’s asbestos industry is still widely used and as of 2012, it provided the people with over 300,000 jobs and brought in $235 million. Countries in the East believe that chrysotile, which is a form of asbestos, is actually safe, and specifically only mine that kind. Asbestos lobbyists have also accused western nations of giving asbestos a “bad reputation” because the West was not “using it right.” This goes to show that education also plays a key part in reducing the use of asbestos, but the education is not made available to the people. Occupational and health safety systems are also not as advanced as those in western regions, so prevention and detection rates are low. The asbestos industry struggles to find countries and people who are willing to mine and import the toxic substance and have begun to rely on poorer nations to do the work. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that most of the 125 million people each year that are exposed to asbestos are in developing countries.
Mesothelioma and other asbestos related diseases have affected individuals and their families throughout the entire world – devastating the lives of millions. Whole towns have disappeared, and mesothelioma incidence rates continue to be on the rise even in countries that have banned asbestos or have been regulating the carcinogen for decades. Even though some areas have seen a decline in mesothelioma and other asbestos related illnesses, as long as countries continue to accept and use the asbestos, there will always be someone who will become ill.
Narelle Towie, “Wittenoom Records the World’s Worst Mesothelioma Rate,” Sciencenetwork WA (July 6, 2016). [Link]
Mesothelioma Center, “Mesothelioma Cancer Trends,” Asbestos.com (June 15, 2016). [Link]
Mesothelioma Center, “Types of Asbestos,” Asbestos.com (June 15, 2016). [Link]
Mesothelioma Center, “Study, Japan Mesothelioma Deaths Will Rise Until 2027,” Asbestos.com (April 17, 2012). [Link]
Miriam Miller, “Wittenoom,” Shattered Lives, The Human Face of the Asbestos Tragedy, (2008). [Link]
Caitlin Mahon, “Is Asbestos Still Used? In Some Developing Countries, It’s a Booming Industry,” Bustle (August 12, 2014). [Link]
Joshi TK & Gupta RK, “Asbestos in Developing Countries: Magnitude of Risk and its Practical Implications,” International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health, (2004). [Link]
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