Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a private contractor, known as “Mr Fluffy”, insulated residential homes with loose-fill amosite asbestos, commonly known as asbestosfluf. At the time, loose-fill asbestos was promoted as a cheap and effective form of insulation and was pumped into the roof spaces of over 1,000 residences located in Canberra, Queanbeyan and surrounding regions.
The insulation work carried out by Mr Fluffy during this period has left a deadly legacy which has shaken the lives of Mr Fluffy homeowners, rental tenants, tradespeople, and the broader community.
Warnings were ignored from early on
A series of oversights and flawed decisions in relation to loose-fill asbestos began as early as 1968, when the Commonwealth was first warned to shut down the Mr Fluffy asbestos insulation company due to the serious health risks associated with the inhalation of loose-fill asbestos. These warnings were ignored by the Commonwealth and Mr Fluffy continued to operate for at least another decade following the provision of such warnings.
Funding to remove contaminated homes
In the late 1980s, the Commonwealth then funded a $100 million program to remove asbestos dust and fibre from contaminated Mr Fluffy homes, however, almost 20 years later it was discovered this removal program was ineffective; with initial removal work carried out unsatisfactorily and a number of homes being missed from the program altogether. The Commonwealth’s inability to take further steps to appropriately remove the toxic dust was blamed on cost considerations and, instead of effective cleanup being prioritised, the solution was to simply include a caveat on issued certificates to indicate remnant fibres could still be present.
A further decade passed with no further significant action taken by the ACT government to properly acknowledge the contamination risk within Mr Fluffy homes.
Homes are still filled with the dangerous substance
In 2005, a report investigating the ACT 1988-1993 Asbestos Removal Program identified many Mr Fluffy homes still presented a source of asbestos contamination, even after roof spaces were cleaned and sealed. Of most significance was that loose-fill amosite had in fact fallen from insulated roof spaces into internal wall cavities and sub-floors of Mr Fluffy homes. It was recommended internal wall cavities be included in the removal program to remove further contamination risks. The report also called for stronger and more frequent warnings to be put in place for purchasers, renters, and tradespeople who were to work on Mr Fluffy homes. Despite these recommendations, internal wall cavities were not included in the loose-fill asbestos removal program and only one formal letter was sent to those most at risk during the next nine years.
In 2010, the government then commissioned the 2010 Asbestos Management review in order to assess the progress of the ACT’s asbestos strategy. The 2010 review reinforced the recommendations of the 2005 report and also considered the single formal letter sent to Mr Fluffy owners and occupiers to be an inadequate response to the 2005 findings.
Despite the identified inadequacies again being brought to the attention of the government by the 2010 report, no further letters were sent concerning asbestos contamination within Mr Fluffy homes and the very real risk of toxic exposure continued to be ignored.
Evidence of the danger
It was not until February 2014 that the ACT government took steps to write directly to those currently occupying Mr Fluffy homes. This correspondence was prompted after an independent study on a Mr Fluffy home provided evidence of asbestos contamination so great, it could not be ignored.
For many, the letter received in February 2014 was the first point in time they were made aware of the risk that deadly asbestos fibres could be present in their home. Many homeowners and residents were left confused, angry, and without appropriate support on receipt of this correspondence.
In June 2014, an Asbestos Response Taskforce was then announced by the ACT government to provide a coordinated response to the lasting impacts of loose-fill asbestos within Canberra homes. The ACT government also took steps to release new guidelines to clarify rules for disclosure when Mr Fluffy homes are sold or leased. In August 2014, it was then announced that high visibility tags will soon be affixed within meter boxes of Mr Fluffy homes, making it easier for tradespeople to identify properties containing loose-fill amosite asbestos insulation.
While it can be said the ACT government has taken steps to act quickly following the release of the study in 2013, many are questioning why more effective action was not taken by the government over the last 40 years, and particularly the last 9 years, to protect those most at risk of inhaling this deadly substance.
There is no safe level
It is well known there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, with loose-fill amosite considered a class 1 carcinogenic, which is easily inhaled into the lungs. No safe level of exposure means that even the smallest asbestos fibre has the potential to cause an asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma. It is therefore of no surprise that many individuals who have come into contact with Mr Fluffy homes now feel considerable distress about what their future may hold. Sadly, the ACT government has confirmed two people who resided in Mr Fluffy homes were diagnosed with mesothelioma and it is relatively unknown how many individuals will ultimately be affected by the inhalation of loose-fill amosite from Mr Fluffy homes. Most will be left waiting, unsure if or when the toxin will strike.
At present, 34 Canberra families are living in emergency accommodation due to high levels of asbestos contamination found present within their home. Emergency support packages have been made available for those forced to leave their homes, with the package consisting of up to $10,000.00 per household and an additional $2,000.00 payable for each dependent child residing in the home. The sum of $1,000 per household is also available for those who are able to remain in their home, but have been required to destroy contaminated items such as clothes and soft furnishing items.
The apparent failure of the government to warn persons who had such an elevated risk of toxic exposure is alarming and the approach of the government until recent events has, unsurprisingly, been heavily criticised.
Calls for homes to be demolished
The current crisis surrounding Mr Fluffy homes is still unfolding and will likely continue for some time. Mr Peter Tighe, head of the federal Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, has called for all Mr Fluffy homes to be demolished. It is very likely the ACT government will take the advice of Mr Tighe and announce a mass demolition program, however, any action to fix the problem will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars to complete.
Ultimately, this deadly problem needs quick, safe and effective action to be undertaken to protect those most at risk of inhaling deadly asbestos fibres. Turner Freeman Lawyers supports the action currently being taken by the Fluffy Owners and Residents’ Action Group relation to this issue.
If you suspect you have lived in an ACT home with loose-fill asbestos insulation, you can lodge an application with the Environment and Planning Directorate. The application process is currently free and will provide confirmation on whether or not your previous ACT residence contained loose-fill asbestos.