Years after the Mr Fluffy debacle unfolded in Canberra, the federal government has agreed to an $8 million fund that will help cover medical expenses for victims of loose-fill asbestos insulation.
The ACT Government will match the federal government’s contribution to establishing a support scheme to assist individuals and their families who may contract mesothelioma over the coming years from exposure to loose-fill asbestos in former Mr Fluffy homes.
“While the remediation process to remove Mr Fluffy-affected homes once and for all has been successful, we may see more Canberrans suffer the harshest impacts of exposure to loose-fill asbestos in the home. This scheme is an important next step in the government’s future response to the legacy of Mr Fluffy,” Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.
The Commonwealth was first made aware of the potential health problems associated with the insulation material as early as 1968, decades before ACT self-government. Loose-fill asbestos was installed in Canberra homes until 1978, and no steps were taken to either remediate the affected buildings or recognise the risks of mesothelioma or asbestosis, both fatal diseases.
While asbestos sheeting was used widely across Canberra in the post-war period, the loose-fill insulation was particularly dangerous due to its lack of a bonding agent, causing it to easily migrate inside a house. A single fibre in the lungs can cause fatal diseases, which may not manifest for many years.
An initial clean-up program occurred in the late 80s. However, it wasn’t until the ACT Government recognised that many homes still contained fibres that a demolition scheme was negotiated between the Government of the Australian Capital Territory and the Commonwealth in 2014.
The Commonwealth Government and then Federal Employment Minister Eric Abetz rejected any federal liability for the clean-up, even though the ACT was administered by the Federal Government throughout the Mr Fluffy period.
Chief Minister Katy Gallagher obtained a 10-year Commonwealth loan to fund the $1 billion clean-up and remediation project after the federal government eventually agreed that the ACT could not borrow the money alone without compromising its credit rating.
More than 1000 houses were identified for acquisition and demolition. A handful of owners chose not to participate in the scheme and remain in their homes.
“We welcome the contribution announced by the Federal Government. It is recognition of joint responsibility to assist sufferers. The loose-fill asbestos was installed in these households before self-government, and the original response was conducted by the Commonwealth Government,” Mr Barr said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt and ACT Senator Zed Seselja have described the Commonwealth support for the healthcare program as “the right thing to do”.
The advocacy of mesothelioma sufferer James Wallner, who was diagnosed last year, has been recognised by political leaders. Mr Wallner is now believed to be in the end stages of the disease, and his family has welcomed the announcement.
They had pleaded with the Commonwealth to take some responsibility for the Mr Fluffy disaster, and Senator Seselja also advocated strongly for the health care scheme.
“I have heard the heartbreaking stories of Canberrans who have suffered greatly as a result of living in a Mr Fluffy home. I hope that in some small way this scheme can ease the burden they and their loved ones face,” Senator Seselja said.
Full details of the ACT scheme will be finalised in the coming weeks.
“We are currently aware of one case, and this individual and his family will be eligible to access support for medical costs associated with the disease”, Mr Barr said.