The Invisible Risks of a Town Ruined by Asbestos

The Invisible Risks of a Town Ruined by Asbestos

Before the trip, an expert had mentioned that we should not kick up dust, because that dust could be laced with asbestos fibers. Easy enough, I thought. Obviously, we hadn’t accounted for the dog.

As much as we tried to be cautious, it’s impossible to be absolutely safe — which is part of Wittenoom’s horror. The longer that residents or visitors stay, the greater danger they face: The blue asbestos fibers are microscopic and invisible to the naked eye, and the cancers they cause can take decades to metastasize.

Unlike, say, a war zone where you’re dealing with physical risks in real time that stop when you leave the location, Wittenoom’s danger is largely invisible, uncertain, and one that stays with you, Mr. Abbott said.

Because of its psychological, invisible nature, people can have very different understandings of what level of risk they’re exposing themselves to, as evidenced by the tourists we spoke to.

Mr. Abbott worried in particular about younger thrill-seeking tourists who might continue to visit the town. “You think you’re invincible and at that age it’s hard to imagine a speck of dust killing you,” he said. “How do you comprehend that? That, to me, is a problem because people will continue to visit there and take those risks without fully comprehending it.”

This is part of the reason the Banjima people, whose native land includes Wittenoom, are lobbying for the contamination to be cleaned up. Not only will it protect their people who continue to visit the area as part of their cultural obligation, they say, it is the only way to protect the health of future visitors.

Now that the last residents have been evicted, the question of what will happen to the contamination site remains.

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