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Asbestos: An Environmental and Human Health Disaster

When I was a kid I lived in an asbestos house built by my father and his friends. I remember playing with bits of asbestos as a child, burning them on fires until they exploded and stuff like that. This was in the nineteen seventies in Perth, Western Australia; it seems that even then many people did not know the dangers this stuff presented. Of course, Wittenoom, the famous ‘blue sky mining’ town is located in WA, in the Pilbara. It is now a ghost town with signs all around the town warning visitors of the potential dangers of asbestos. Asbestos fibres can become embedded in the lungs and then can be slow to develop into serious and often terminal lung diseases. Breathing difficulties are caused by a thickening of the lung’s pleura and this makes breathing painful and difficult.

Asbestos has been with humanity since the Stone Age apparently. There were asbestos mines in Greece and northern Europe around 5000 BCE. Egyptian Pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth around 2200 BCE. Herodotus tells us, in 456 BCE, that the Greeks were wrapping their dead in asbestos cloth prior to cremation; which seems somewhat self-defeating. Asbestos mine workers were getting lung disease in Roman times, according to Pliny the Elder in 100 CE. During the Crusades the Christian forces catapulted burning bags of tar wrapped in asbestos at the heathen enemy in 1095 CE. The Mongols wore asbestos clothing into battle in 1280 CE. In 1924 the first diagnosis of a woman who died from lung disease after working with asbestos for twenty years is made. A later study reveals that 25% of asbestos workers have a asbestos related lung disease. Asbestos is in WWII gas masks. From 1940 to 1970 asbestos is found in hair dryers, electric blankets, plaster, gutters, building products and brake plates. Asbestos is the biggest killer of tradespeople in the UK; still today with some twenty dying every week.

Asbestos: An Environmental and Human Health Disaster

In Australia, we were the biggest users of asbestos in the world per capita; with one third of all homes containing some asbestos. Homes built prior to 1980 are very likely to have some asbestos in the building materials used. Homes built after 1990 are unlikely to contain any asbestos material. Around five hundred men and one hundred women develop the disease mesothelioma every year in Australia. Asbestos related diseases have killed many thousands of Australians over the years.

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