Clean-up for Mr Fluffy houses could cost $1 billion

Solving the problem of homes contaminated with asbestos in New South Wales will not come cheap, according to ACT Government statements to the Canberra Times, which put the cost of buying the contaminated houses for demolition as high as $1 billion.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher told ABC News the state would need to buy the approximately 1,000 contaminated houses in order to demolish them, and that she had already begun receiving valuations from affected owners, with some coming in at upwards of $1 million.

More than 1,000 houses in the south of New South Wales had their roof cavities filled with loose-fill asbestos by the Mr Fluffy company during the 1960s and 70s (Mr Fluffy stopped operating in 1979). While the first negative health effects of asbestos were discovered in 1899, Australia did not start regulating it until the late 1970s, with white asbestos finally banned in 2003.

The ACT government is currently in talks with the Commonwealth Government, she said, and was also looking at recouping as much as $700 million of the costs by selling the land on after the houses had been demolished.

“There is an issue about cash flow and there is an issue, if we proceed with a demolition program, how fast people would want to relinquish their homes and move out,” she said. “The true cost will not be known until we finish the program.”

The fate of the occupants is also raising concerns, as despite the contamination many still have outstanding mortgages that need to be paid. This can cause strife when families need to move out and have trouble paying both rent for their new accommodation and their existing mortgage payments.

The ACT government has announced an emergency support package of up to $10,000 per household with an extra $2,000 per dependent child, to help those living in Mr Fluffy houses move out. To qualify, they must have been advised by an asbestos assessor that they needed to leave.

Grants of $1,000 are also available for those still living in contaminated homes who have been advised to destroy contaminated items.

Government was warned of contamination 25 years ago

The Australian Commonwealth was given expert medical advice in 1988 on the health risks that houses insulated with Mr Fluffy asbestos posed, say the Fluffy Owners and Residents’ Action group, citing documents obtained through freedom of information legislation requests.

The group says that the Commonwealth had received reports from both occupational health academic Dr David Douglas and the National Health and Medical Research Council concerned that more deaths would ensue if people lived in houses insulated with Mr Fluffy.

Dr Douglas told the Canberra Times that the Mr Fluffy contamination was “a public health asbestos problem far greater than any documented elsewhere in the world” and that exposure levels to the fibres by those who had been hired to install the insulation were “likely to have been as high as any ever recorded”.

The reports also raised concerns that children were more vulnerable to contracting mesothelioma (a form of cancer in the lining of the lungs or other organs) from exposure to asbestos fibres. Asbestos is a class-1 carcinogen, a category it shares with arsenic, plutonium, mustard gas and formaldehyde.

The government of 1988 was preparing to remove the insulation from the ceilings of over 1,000 homes in a five-year, $100 million program. However, this program failed to remove all the asbestos from the affected houses.

Although the program was carried out, it has been discovered that the asbestos insulation was not removed from 12 houses and many of the houses that were cleared have been found to still be contaminated by residual asbestos. Owners now await a decision from the ACT and Commonwealth Governments on whether to demolish the houses.

Professor Bruce Armstrong, who was Director and Professor of Epidemiology and Cancer Research at the National Health and Medical Research Council at the time, told the Canberra Times that it was known then that asbestos had escaped some houses’ roofs and contaminated the living spaces.

The risk of developing mesotheliuma was 25 times higher for those living in Mr Fluffy homes than the base population, he said, rising from 26 deaths per million to 650.

“It should be noted that the National Research Council’s estimates were based on exposure to mixed asbestos fibres including chrysotile which carries a lower risk of mesothelioma than does amosite. Thus the risk in the Canberra houses would be likely to be greater than the above estimates would suggest,” he said.

In his report, Professor Armstrong had advised the government to quickly remove the asbestos from both the roofs and living spaces, also pointing out that residents would be anxious if they thought they’d be exposed to the carcinogen, fearing for both for their health and the future of their property.

“Anxiety and fear are major causes of disability. The levels of both will rise the longer people continue to live in the asbestos insulated homes,” he said.

Founder of the Fluffy Owners and Residents’ Action Group Brianna Heseltine told the Canberra Times that anxiety and stress levels were “off the charts” and that she did not see many options for the government.

“They either decide that there is an acceptable death toll among the Mr Fluffy owner and resident population, or they come together to eliminate the risk,”

It defied belief, she said, that the New South Wales government had not re-evaluated its stance on the danger of the fibres, which was that they weren’t a threat so long as they weren’t disturbed. Dr Douglas’ report, she said, raised the risk that the asbestos could escape through the tiles and that damage to homes caused by wind, water and fire could also raise exposure levels.

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