WA's asbestos mining history book has a new deadly chapter, with research showing the so-called "Wittenoom kids" are dying of a range of cancers well above the normal rate - and not just from mesothelioma.
The Perth study, the first to look at the long-term health of those who spent their childhood in Wittenoom between 1943 and 1966, has found higher rates of brain, ovarian and prostate cancer and as much as an 83 per cent increased risk of death from any cause.
The WA Institute for Medical Research study, based at the University of WA's school of population health, found 2460 children were exposed to blue asbestos fibres before the age of 15, mostly from the age of three and often by playing in tailings around their homes.
The results, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine this week, show girls who lived in Wittenoom have gone on to have higher rates of mesothelioma and ovarian and brain cancers.
Boys who spent their childhood and early teenage years in Wittenoom have had higher rates of mesothelioma, leukaemia, prostate, brain and bowel cancers and diseases of the circulatory and nervous systems.
WAIMR Associate Professor Alison Reid said that while data had been collected on asbestos-related diseases caused by occupational asbestos exposure among men, the study was the first to look at the long-term health of children who lived in Wittenoom.
Mining of the deadly blue asbestos stopped there in 1966 and the town was later closed after airborne fibres in dust from mining operations were found to cause malignant mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and other serious diseases.
Of the Wittenoom children studied, the vast majority left the town by the time they were 16, so were exposed to asbestos only during their childhood.
By the end of 2007, 228 had died of a range of causes.
By the end of 2009, 215 cases of cancer had been diagnosed in the group.
Professor Reid said compared with other West Australians, Wittenoom girls had faced a 20 to 47 per cent greater risk of dying from any cause, while boys had had a 50 to 83 per cent increased chance of dying from any cause.
She said while the town had been moved 12km from the mine in 1947, tailings had been used throughout the town.
"These tailings, rich in crocidolite fibres, were used to pave roads, footpaths, parking areas, the local racecourse and school playgrounds," she said.
"They were even used in people's backyards, where, of course, children often played.
"These 'Wittenoom kids' are now reaching the age where chronic adult diseases are becoming more prevalent and many have died."
She said it was important to keep following former residents. It gave researchers important information on the long-term implications of childhood exposure to asbestos.
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