Visiting abandoned towns can be hazardous for a number of reasons, including crumbling structures and guards who will shoot trespassers on sight. But some ghost towns have toxic legacies due to chemicals, radiation, or even biological weapons.
Top image of Picher, Oklahoma, by peggydavis66.
Fortunately, some of these toxic ghost towns have been cleaned up, and while they may have caused health hazards for residents, some are relatively safe for visitors. But it's also important to remember that plenty of toxic towns aren't abandoned; many of these sites were abandoned because residents were financially compensated for their homes or otherwise enticed to leave (which is why so many of these are in the US, which has the Superfund act). For example, Pacific Gas & Electric has bought out many of the homes in Hinkley, California—the town made famous by the Erin Brockovich case—causing the town to trend toward a ghost town. There are some towns on this list, however, that you may want to think twice about visiting:
Wittenoom, Western Australia: During World War II, Wittenoom was a mining boomtown and what it mined was crocidolite, commonly known as blue asbestos. Miners inhaled the asbestos dust and carried it on their clothes back into town. Although government officials warned of the dangers associated with blue asbestos (such as asbestosis and mesothelioma) as early as the 1940s, mining continued and in 1978, the government developed a policy of phasing down activity in the town, encouraging residents to move by purchasing their houses. By 1993, the post office, nursing post, school, and airport had all been closed. Eventually, the town's name was taken off the map entirely. Of the 20,000 people who resided in Wittenoom during its mining operations, an estimated 2,000 have died from asbestos-related ailments.
How dangerous is it today? According to the Western Australia Department of Lands, mine tailings containing crocidolite extend for several kilometers downstream from the mining sites, in part because stockpiles have been eroded and dispersed over the years. The government advises against visiting Wittenoom, however, as of last year, the town wasn't completely abandoned; the Western Australian government has been looking to move out the last few holdouts, and at least one geologist has said that the asbestos is now down to safe levels.
Kantubek, Uzbekistan: For a time, Vozrozhdeniya Island, where Kantubek is located, was known infamously as "asbestos island." The island was home to a biological weapons testing area—as well as 1,500 fill-time residents. One of the laboratory's projects was to work on an anthrax vaccine, but the laboratory also worked with smallpox, bubonic plague, brucellosis, and tularemia. In 1971, those tests caused ten people on the island to contract smallpox, and three of those people died. In 1988, the laboratory staff hastily buried tons of anthrax spores that had been stocked in Sverdlovsk (itself the site of a deadly anthrax incident) in defiance of a 1972 treaty banning biological weapons. The spores remained on Vozrozhdeniya when the lab was abandoned in 1992. The town of Kantubek stands in ruins.
How dangerous is it today? In 2002, the United States and Uzbekistan collaborated on a project to decontaminate ten anthrax burial sites. However, in a 2003 interview with the New York Times, Gennadi Lepyoshkin, a microbiologist who worked on the island, said that some of the rodents may have been exposed to weapons-grade plague, which could still remain on the island, passed from rodent to rodent via fleas.
Love Canal, Niagara Falls: Despite the name, Love Canal stands as one of the US's greatest environment tragedies, one whose effects are still felt today. In the 1890s, William T. Love launched a project to dig a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers, with a plan to harvest cheap power for an idyllic city. After the plan stalled, the Love Canal became a dump site for municipal waste and industrial chemicals. The landfill was not adequately managed, and when the Hooker Chemical Company covered the site with earth and sold it to the city in 1953, it remained highly toxic. Homes and a school were built on top of the landfill, and in the late 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency reported an unusually high number of miscarriages and birth defects among the residents of Love Canal, as well as high white blood cell counts and a high rate of chromosomal damage. An autopsy of one child who died of kidney disease showed symptoms similar to those found with dioxin poisoning. Eventually, the government relocated more than 800 families and reimbursed them for their homes—which were bulldozed. The issues surrounding Love Canal led in part to the formation of the Superfund act, which provided for environmental waste cleanup.
How dangerous is it today? Although much of Love Canal is gone, with only power lines and parking lots as a reminder of what was once there, the EPA has declared portions of the neighborhood safe, and people have moved in, attracted by cheap homes and the assurance that the area has been tested time and again. But some residents claim that Love Canal is still hazardous to human health; after toxic chemicals allegedly spewed from a sewer line in 2011, a fresh round of lawsuits were filed on behalf of former and current residents of the neighborhood.
Picher, Oklahoma: The Tar Creek area, which includes the lead and zinc mining town of Picher was designated a Superfund site in 1983. In the mid-1990s, a third of children in Picher were found to have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream, which can cause cognitive issues. (Members of the Picher school board have said that students showed a high rate of learning difficulties, despite the work of teachers and the school board.) But that's not what ultimately triggered the mass exodus from Picher; in 2006, a study found that, due to mining, the ground was at risk for collapse, and in fact one motorist died after driving into a gaping hole in the ground. That triggered a federal relocation buyout, with only six households and one business remaining in 2011.
How dangerous is it today? Well, the long-term plans for Picher don't include human habitation. The town is being gradually dismantled, and once the cleanup is finished, the land will likely be turned over to the Quapaw tribe, which resided there before the mines came in. At the moment, the Quapaw tribe intends to turn the area into wetlands. Other towns in the area, including Treece, Kansas, and Cardin, Oklahoma, are largely abandoned.
Times Beach, Missouri: During the 1970s, Times Beach had a problem with dust, and so it paid waste hauler Russell Bliss to oil the roads using waste oil. The problem was that Bliss had been paid to eliminate waste from a hexachlorophene facility that had been partially used in the production of Agent Orange. Bliss claims that he was unaware that the waste he was using contained extremely high levels of dioxin. After the Meramec River flooded in 1982, the EPA announced that it had detected 100 times what it considered safe levels of dioxin and ordered the town evacuated. President Reagan formed a dioxin task force, and a few months later the EPA announced a buyout.
How dangerous is it today? Actually, it's quite safe, though most of the town's structures are gone. The EPA mounted a massive dioxin cleanup, and the land where Times Beach one stood is now Route 66 State Park, and the sole building that remains is an old roadhouse that served as the EPA's headquarters during the cleanup. There is some question, however, as to whether the evacuation of Times Beach was necessary; a disaster in Seveso, Italy, resulted in civilian exposure to larger levels of dioxin, and that city was not ultimately abandoned. Research into just how dangerous dioxin exposure is has continued in the wake of the cleanup.
Brio Toxic Neighborhood, Texas: The Brio Refinery Site, located in Harris County, Texas, was home to numerous chemical companies up until the Brio Refinery declared bankruptcy in 1982. Unprocessed petroleum and waste materials had been stored in earthen pits and leaked into the groundwater, affecting the nearby neighborhood. The waste exposure has been linked to leukemia, birth defects, and rare illnesses, and in 1992, six chemical companies and a real estate developer agreed to pay for the college educations of 700 children in the affected area. Although much of it was demolished, parts of the abandoned Southbend subdivision in Friendswood are still standing.
How dangerous is it today? The EPA installed a clay barrier that goes 45 feet underground to contain the contaminants from the refinery. However, in 2010, monitoring wells found contaminants more than 50 feet below the refinery. The EPA has removed the Brio site from its national priorities list, but continues to monitor it.
New Idria, California: New Idria wasn't abandoned due to environmental concerns; its residents moved on after the New Idria Quicksilver Mining Company closed down in 1972. But like so many mining towns, there have been concerns about environmental hazards in the form of mercury runoff as well as short-fiber asbestos, which is shed from natural rock formations.
How dangerous is it today? In 2011, the EPA listed the landmark ghost town as a Superfund site, and the Rand McNally Road Atlas warns that the region south of New Idria is an "Asbestos Hazard Area."
Centralia, Pennsylvania: One of the most visually striking environmental disasters is the underground coal fire that has burned beneath Centralia for 50 years. No one is quite sure what igniting the fire in the first place, but it continues to burn through an enormous coal mine. The streets have buckled from the heat and gases, and the fire pours toxins into the atmosphere. One resident fell into a sinkhole that formed in his backyard, which was found to contain lethal levels of carbon monoxide. Relocation efforts kicked off in 1984, and most of the residents accepted buyouts, leaving Centralia a veritable ghost town.
How dangerous is it today? Centralia attracts numerous visitors and a few holdouts have been permitted to remain, although no new residents may move in. The nearby town of Byrnesville, which was also affected by the fire, was leveled. The fire won't stop spewing toxic fumes into the air any time soon; there is enough coal to keep it burning for another 250 years.
Pripyat, Ukraine: Perhaps the most famous contaminated area, Pripyat was evacuated in the days following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. With a population of 49,400 before the disaster, Pripyat is a large an fascinating ghost town, and tourists and photographers have been attracted to its crumbling buildings with personal items left behind and its haunting amusement park.
How dangerous is it today? The radiation levels have dropped considerably since the disaster, and many companies offer tours of the Chernobyl Alienation Zone. However, the crumbling buildings themselves provide a risk. Denizens of cities near Pripyat still suffer from ill health effects related to the disaster, however.
Fukushima Exclusion Zone: The tragic earthquake that rocked the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011 forced the evacuation of nearby towns, and Namie-machi remains a ghost town within the 12-mile exclusion zone. The homes and businesses stand as very modern ghost towns among the damage from the earthquake.
How dangerous is it today? Although a 2013 WHO report claimed that cancer risk from Fukushima is low, the Japanese government is taking precautions with Namie-machi. Residents can receive special permission to return to their homes, but may not stay overnight.