The true story of asbestos in Australia


For almost thirty years, in the middle of the last century, Australia was one of the world’s largest producer, user and exporter of an amphibole asbestos fiber, crocidolite, commonly referred to as blue asbestos. Today, it is scientifically established and widely recognized that this type of fiber carries a high risk for both human health and the environment.

The exploitation of crocidolite that took place in Wittenoon, Australia, between 1937 and 1966 was infamous and responsible for a wide range of diseases that affected the people who worked in the mines and at the mills. The health of other people, who weren’t necessarily living in the area, was also impacted.

Potential risk analyses reveal that 6 % of the manpower, 1,9% of the women and 1,1% of the children who were living in the area and were exposed to that environment could possibly suffer from a very serious pulmonary cancer, called mesothelioma.

According to an article published by the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, blue asbestos was produced in Australia between 1880 and 2003. It is also well documented that, in the 1950s, Australia was, per capita, the world’s largest asbestos consumer. Besides crocidolite, the country also exported another type of amphibole, called amosite, namely to Japan.

Australia also exploited chrysotile fiber (serpentine) during the 20th century with output reaching its peak in the seventies, following the closing of the Wittenoon crocidolite mine. It lasted into the eighties.

It is thus clear that during all those years asbestos production in Australia was dominated by amphibole type fibers. Australia and South Africa were the fibers’ most important producers and exporters during that period.

This explains why, nowadays, many people are struggling with severe health problems linked to their exposure to those fibers that are now banned. Exposure to amphiboles carries almost unavoidable health risks.

These situations are deeply deplorable. However, they also highlight the need to differentiate between the fibers. Because if science nowadays has informed us, without the shadow of a doubt, of the true risks associated with exposure to amphibole-type fibers, it also has confirmed the distinction that must be made between amphiboles and serpentine, both in terms of their chemical composition and of their dangerousness level.

Safe and responsible use is the only acceptable answer

The safe and responsible use of any product, mix or fibers that carry a certain level of risk for human health is and efficient and respectful answer. However, it also requires a level of rigor that can lead as far as the banishment of products that can’t be efficiently controlled, such as amphiboles, which have rightly been banned for decades. But one should not for that matter yield to the temptation of a blanket banishment, as demanded by some crusaders who refuse to recognize the true findings of contemporary science which dictate that amphiboles must be banned but that serpentine can be used if handled in a controlled and responsible manner.

As the ICA has so often repeated, “Amphiboles must be banned, chrysotile must be controlled”. Responsible practices and current knowledge now enable countries to avoid repeating past mistakes and the human tragedy that those generated.

For more information, consult the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine and the Bureau of Mineral Resources.