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Another Australian Town Grapples With Asbestos

Baryulgil, New South Wales is a small town located south of Brisbane on Australia's eastern coast. Its an aboriginal community that for decades mined asbestos for James Hardie Co. and has since suffered a silent epidemic wrought by asbestos and prejudice.

The town's asbestos mine opened in 1942 and operated until 1979 bringing employment and prosperity to the tiny north coast town. Kids played in mine tailings and fill from the mine was used for playgrounds and driveways. Workers came home caked in dust that spread through their homes and drank water contaminated with asbestos fibers.

No one suspected asbestos could poison those who came into contact with it. Even when people began asking questions, they were quickly assuaged by their supervisors.

As one former miner put it, "When I asked my white bosses about the dangers of asbestos exposure, they told me not to worry. that it only affected white miners and not blacks."

Workers inhaled asbestos laced dust so thick that, "When you walked in it was impossible to see anywhere" said a former manager during a 1984 misconduct hearing. The company was found to have violated health regulations by exposing its workers to unlawful levels of dust up until it sold the mine in 1976.

At its peak, the town was home to nearly 350 people but after the mine closed it has since dwindled to just over 200.

A recently released report predicts that 10 percent of the town's population will contract an asbestos related disease on top the 10 percent who have already become ill or died from the effects of asbestos exposure.

The figures are being contested by lawyers and community advocates who claim preliminary medical exams have turned up as many as 100 possible cases of asbestos induced diseases.

Despite the prevalence of diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis, Baryugil residents were to be left out of a compensation pool set up by the company to settle mesothelioma cases. They were later included only after local news coverage pressed the company to include them.

Residents could face a similar fate to Wittenoom, Australia. Wittenoom was home to one of the world's largest asbestos mines until it was shutdown following a health epidemic. In time it went from a bustling hub of nearly 20,000 people to a ghost town.