Ghost towns are traditionally less ominous than they sound. They tend to be abandoned areas that have died slowly as industries shut down and residents leave. But Wittenoom in Western Australia might be living up to the name. Formerly the home to the country’s largest blue asbestos mine, operated between the 1930s and 60s, it has been described as one of the most dangerous and contaminated places on the planet.
In case you didn’t hear, asbestos is bad news. In the past, it was a common material in building insulation. But we now know if fibres are breathed into lungs they can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma—a rare cancer of the tissue that lines body cavities.
In Wittenoom alone, over 2,000 deaths have been tied to asbestos. In 1978 the state government began shuttering the town over mounting health concerns. But that hasn’t stopped the site becoming something of a tourist attraction in recent years, with thousands making the cancer-loaded pilgrimage. The ABC reports that WA tourism operators have even organised guides visits to the town—which it should be mentioned is covered in signs warning clearly stating the site is contaminated.
Although the mines are closed, the danger is still very present. The WA Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage’s website explains: “As a result of past mining activity in Wittenoom, tiny asbestos fibres remain on the ground and in the air... The asbestos can be carried by wind and water, and can be disturbed by human activities such as walking or driving through the area, making them easy to inhale.”
They add the very clear warning: “Asbestos fibres from past mining operations in Wittenoom have already resulted in thousands of fatalities among miners, residents and visitors to the town. STAY SAFE. DO NOT TRAVEL TO WITTENOOM.”
This all begs the question — why? Well, as you may have noticed, humans really like creepy abandoned places. Like, seriously, it’s gonna make up 20 percent of this site’s traffic.
Similar to the tourism around Chernobyl, the promise of visiting somewhere dangerous and forgotten is too much for some. As Queensland Photographer Jenny Rush explained to The ABC: “Nothing really prepared us for the eeriness of it, or the beauty of it, it was bizarre….There's raw beauty there — you look at the hills and the layout of the hills and the cliffs — then you'll see a man-made causeway in amongst it all and know that it was a bustling place, a thriving place at some point."
If you’re still fascinated by the town, consider this safe alternative to visiting: the Facebook page Lost Wittenoom was created by former local Lyniece Bolitho. For some context, bother her grandfathers, three uncles and father all worked in the mines and died of mesothelioma. Here she posts photos from the community and articles about the town’s history
Our advice? Western Australia is a really cool place. Maybe just visit the beach or something.
We know you love this stuff. So here are some more abandoned places to safely peruse through your screen.