Insta-fame hungry tourists are ignoring cancer warnings to chase trophy photos of a condemned Pilbara town which has killed more than 2000 people.
Dozens of photos taken in the former asbestos mining town of Wittenoom and nearby gorges show visitors with no protective gear, sometimes just a shirt covering their mouths, walking on asbestos piles and even breaking into dust-filled mine shafts.
Former Wittenoom child Helen Cheeseman, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma this year, said there were plenty of safer ghost towns worth visiting.
“Don’t go. You are stupid, you are mad, you are insane,” she said.
“Asbestos is deadly, scary, microscopic s***, and it will get you.”
Wittenoom mine was shut in 1966 due to growing cancer concerns associated with blue asbestos. Some 10 per cent of the former town’s mine workers have contracted mesothelioma in the years since, and a another 10 per cent have been diagnosed with lung cancer.
Signs make clear the risk of entering the area, though scores of online images of visitors posing next to warning signs, swimming in gorge waterholes, and even picking up deadly fibres show many ignore the message.
Shire of Ashburton chief executive Rob Paull said there should be no entry at all to Wittenoom.
“We strongly, strongly encourage people not to go to Wittenoom,” he said.
Max Thomas is one of 29 people to visit Wittenoom and share their trip on Instagram already this year.
“I don’t really see there being a much higher risk… as Karijini, (which) also has asbestos in the rocks,” he said.
“For the short period we were there I don’t think we were affected by any health issues regarding asbestos.
“It is a beautiful area and considering it backs onto Karijini it has the same landscapes and scenery.”
Lands Minister Ben Wyatt said exposure to a single asbestos fibre could prove fatal.
“It is important to understand that when the mine closed there were three million tonnes of asbestos tailings left behind in the gorge and surrounding area,” he said.
“These warnings signs are not there for decoration or to add your Instagram collection,” he said.
“We must be realistic and the fact of the matter is that it is unlikely that Wittenoom will ever again be a safe place to visit.”
Mr Wyatt said the government was considering restrictions to gorge access and multilingual warnings, but remediation of the area was hamstrung so long as residents still lived in the former town.
Institute for Respiratory Health deputy director Fraser Brims said he feared young people were not aware of the tragic history of Wittenoom.
“Wittenoom has killed a lot of people and I fear people have forgotten that,” he said.
“Now in this Youtube, GoPro generation people are thinking they will be all right for a weekend to… take some nice pics and post them up online, which is pretty foolish.”
Mr Brims said while the risk from a single exposure was minimal, it could take up to 50 years for cancer to develop in people exposed to asbestos today.