Last homes in asbestos-riddled Wittenoom to be demolished, but some want to stay

Nobody seems to be taking into account what it means that there are elderly people still living there. So if asbestos is so bad for you how come? Shouldn't they all be dead?

What it shows is that the toxicity of asbestos is very low. You only get ill if you have been breathing in a lot of it for many years. So the hysteria about it is greatly exaggerated. Asbestos products in peoples homes ("fibro") are no threat to health at all

The former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom has claimed many lives, but it is not enough to deter some who proudly call it home.

After years of compensation offers, the WA government will turn to forcibly removing the remaining properties, under a bill expected to pass Parliament.

It is hoped the clearing of the former town site will reduce the attraction for visitors, who ignore significant health warnings of asbestos fibres on the ground and in the air at Wittenoom. Just 12km away lies three million tonnes of asbestos tailings.

Peter Heyward moved to the area in the 90s and said he knew of the dangers but enjoyed the lifestyle. "This is just beautiful living here," he said.

"Looking at the mountains, you get the view of the savanna and you're right beside a gorge that's got water all year round."

Long-term resident Lorraine Thomas said she had options if she was forced to leave, but she hoped to live out her life in Wittenoom. "This is home, and I haven't got anywhere else that I've found in this state or in this country that I'd like to call home," she said.

"They can't move the hills, the whole area… I love the weather. "No person can take that from me."

The WA government's planned eviction and demolition would come with an undisclosed amount of compensation.

Mario Hartmann is one of the residents who recently took up an offer to hand over his property, but it has not kept him away. "It's too cold down south so I come in winter to enjoy the warm weather," he said.

Tourists warned to stay away

With more West Australians exploring their own state during the pandemic's travel restrictions, Mr Hartmann noticed a surge in visitors.

"This year I've never seen that many people come here, some days you would have 50, 60 cars going out [to the gorge and the asbestos tailings]," he said.

It is an alarming figure for Curtin University Associate Professor Alison Reid, who has examined the health impact of the mine.

"People [who visit Wittenoom] are putting themselves unnecessarily at risk," she said. "We know that the risk of mesothelioma [a rare cancer] can occur with low exposure, so I think in that case it should be closed."

At least 1,200 former Wittenoom residents and workers have died from lung cancer and mesothelioma, according to a database maintained by UWA's Occupational Respiratory Epidemiology Group.

"The Flying Doctors used to hone in on the town of Wittenoom from the blue haze on the horizon and that was the dust…that's how the workers and the people in the town got exposed, through that dust. "It has made Western Australia have the highest rates of mesothelioma in the world."

The area is no longer on official maps, it was declared a contaminated site and the state government have repeatedly warned the public against visiting.

Lands Minister Tony Buti said visitors posed a risk to the wider public because cars could spread particles beyond the area.

"There is no question that this area is one of the saddest chapters in WA history," he said. "However, we must be realistic, and the fact is it's unlikely Wittenoom will ever again be a safe place to live or visit."

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