In 1937, miner Lang Hancock found a valuable mineral near the town of Wittenoom, Western Australia. It was something used in building materials, valued for its amazing properties -- flame-retardant, super strong and durable. The unfortunate side effect from mining it, not discovered until years later, was death.
Demand for blue asbestos increased with the onset of World War II, when production of battleships, tanks, planes and helmets called for the tough, fibrous mineral. Both Australians and immigrants moved to Wittenoom to mine blue asbestos, with about 7,000 having worked the mines over a 23-year period. At one point, the town reached a population of about 20,000 [source: SafetyLine Institute].
Warnings of the dangers from asbestos fell on deaf ears. In 1948, a government medical officer warned of the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibers. Despite that and other reports, mining continued in Wittenoom until 1966.
To make matters worse, blue asbestos tailings -- discarded scraps of rock -- were used as a cheaper substitute for sand and gravel in roads, a local airport and other municipal projects. Residents even put the tailings in their yards and gardens.
The Australian government eventually began phasing out the town, discouraging residents from living there. By 1991, the death toll of those who had contracted asbestosis or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs and chest with no known cure, reached 500 [source: SafetyLine Institute]. In 2006, power to the town was cut, and in 2007, Wittenoom was removed from maps by the government. Despite this, a handful of residents remain.
In the next deflated boom town, a Japanese city rises from the sea like a battleship on mission.