The invisible risks of a city ruined by asbestos

Before the trip, an expert mentioned that we should not raise dust, because that dust could be mixed with asbestos fibers. Pretty easy, I thought. Obviously, we had not taken the dog into account.

As much as we try to be cautious, it’s impossible to be absolutely sure, which is part of the horror of Wittenoom. The longer residents or visitors stay, the greater the danger they face: 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 face real-time physical hazards that stop when you leave, Wittenoom’s hazard is largely invisible, uncertain and stays with you, Abbott said.

Due to its psychological and invisible nature, people can have a very different understanding of the level of risk to which they are exposed, as evidenced by the tourists we spoke with.

Mr. Abbott was particularly concerned about younger thrill-seeking tourists who might continue to visit the city. “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 understand that? That, to me, is a problem because people will continue to visit it and take those risks without fully understanding it.”

This is part of the reason why the people of Banjima, whose homeland includes Wittenoom, are pushing for the contamination to be cleaned up. It will not only protect its 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 remains of what will happen to the contamination site.