Thursday, 06 September 2012

Exposure legacy of asbestos in Wittenoom takes toll

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Kids AsbestosFour year old neighbours playing in an asbestos sandpit in a residential backyard in Wittenoom 1953. Image: Photo courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia Inc.ADULTS who were exposed to blue asbestos in their childhood have an increased incidence of cancer or death, a Western Australian study has found.

The study, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine documented the incidence of cancer and deaths in adults that grew up in the mining community of Wittenoom, where poisonous asbestos fibres were mined and milled between 1943 and 1966.

Lead researcher and West Australian Institute of Medical Research Associate Professor Alison Reid says the former Wittenoom workers and residents were of interest to researchers due to their exposure to the asbestos.

A/Prof Reid says the study found malignant mesothelioma was specifically associated with those who were first exposed to blue asbestos as children.

“Compared with the Western Australian population, we also found that former Children of Wittenoom had more brain cancers (males and females) and more leukaemias (males only), although numbers were small,” she says.

“We can definitively say that these were caused by blue asbestos in Wittenoom children compared with the Western Australian population.”

A/Prof Reid says after adjusting for asbestos exposure, her team found males had higher rates of mesothelioma than females.

“We tend to think that our exposure measurements may have underestimated the amount of asbestos that the men were exposed to, and so perhaps the difference between males and females is just that men were exposed to more asbestos than women,” she says.

“Men (or boys) may have played outside more ... and so have had a higher asbestos exposure than girls.”

She says asbestos did not seem to affect children’s health differently than adults. 

“We thought children might have had a higher risk of asbestos-related diseases (mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis) than adults because they were lower to the ground, played in asbestos sandpits and on school playgrounds that were covered with asbestos tailings—but we have not seen this in this study,” A/Prof Reid says.

“Instead, the rate of mesothelioma is lower among those who were exposed as children compared with those who were exposed as adults. 

“However, the lifetime risk of developing mesothelioma may be higher among those exposed to blue asbestos as children—because they have longer to live and therefore a longer time in which to develop the disease.”

A/Prof Reid says hopefully there will never be another Wittenoom again.

“Certainly the levels of asbestos exposure that occurred at Wittenoom will not happen again in our community,” she says.

The Australian Asbestos Network was launched in March 2012 offering features medical information, information about asbestos in homes and the environment.

Readers can discover how far health and safety has come in a section devoted to the social history of Wittenoom.

australianasbestosnetwork.org.au

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