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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.

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

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