The Taskforce Report
In August 2014, the Taskforce reported on the legacy of the 'Mr Fluffy' loose fill asbestos in the ACT and made recommendations to remove the risk of loose fill asbestos from homeowners, tenants and the broader community.
The Long Term Management of Loose Fill Asbestos Insulation in Canberra Homes report was an important review that informed the ACT Governments response.
Read the full report here: Long Term Management of Loose Fill Asbestos Insulation in Canberra Homes report.
Since the late 1960s an unknown and perhaps unknowable number of Canberrans have lived in homes affected by loose fill asbestos insulation. Some of them paid to have it installed, but many have only discovered its presence in their homes in recent times. In the late 1980s and early 1990s a joint Commonwealth and Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government program sought to remove visible and accessible asbestos from affected homes. For a while it was thought by many that the asbestos was gone altogether, or that at least it was confined to roof spaces and wall cavities.
We now know that is not the case.
Loose asbestos fibres remain in the roof spaces, wall cavities, and subfloors of affected homes. In recent times they have also been found, sometimes in visible quantities, in cupboards, heating and cooling ducts and vents, living rooms and bedrooms.
'Mr Fluffy' is the commonly used name for the asbestos fluff insulation installed by D. Jansen & Co. Pty Ltd and its successor firms which installed loose fill asbestos insulation between 1968 and 1978-79 in Canberra and, it is believed, the surrounding region. Contemporary advertisements promised 'sure comfort and fuel savings' to homeowners who paid less than $100 to insulate an average 11 square house with what was claimed to be 'CSIRO Tested and Approved' as 'the perfect thermal insulating material'1. That material comprised raw asbestos, crushed and blown into roof spaces and allowed to settle across the battens and ceilings, and behind the cornices, of more than 1000 Canberra homes2.
It is crucial to the subsequent history of this issue that in this application asbestos was finely crushed and not blended with any other materials. This is because a sample of asbestos fibres just visible to the naked eye contains around 20,000 fibres, and a sample the size of a 50 cent piece up to two million.
The stated claims as to efficacy of Mr Fluffy insulation are true. Asbestos is a very good insulator and fire retardant material, but it has a darker side.
Between 1989 and 1993, the Commonwealth and ACT Governments undertook a jointly funded program to remove visible and accessible loose fill asbestos insulation from affected homes in the ACT. That program, designed by the Commonwealth before the commencement of self-government for the ACT in 1989, was largely delivered by the newly-formed ACT Government. It has been publicly acknowledged that loose fill asbestos insulation was also installed in a number of properties in Queanbeyan, but it is also understood to have been installed in an unknown number of additional properties in New South Wales (NSW). NSW homes were, however, outside the scope of the original removal program.
The prevailing view at the time of that program, amongst at least some of the owners of affected homes, and notwithstanding disclaimers to the contrary on the program’s completion certificates, was that all loose fill asbestos insulation was removed.
The ACT Government wrote to the owners of affected homes in 1993 and 2005 reminding them of the presence of loose fill asbestos fibres in the structure of their homes. In 2005-06 it also made changes to the presentation of information about affected houses on building files held by the ACT Planning and Land Authority, and in the title searches conducted as part of conveyancing processes. The language of visible and accessible asbestos being removed and residual fibres remaining in the walls remained current in ACT Government documents in 2012-13 when a house that had been missed in the original removal program came to light in the suburb of Downer. It emerged that the level of contamination in the living areas of that house was very significant.he ACT Government again wrote to residents of affected homes in February 2014, drawing on the report of the forensic deconstruction of the Downer house, reminding them of the continuing presence of asbestos fibres in the structure of their homes, and recommending they have an asbestos assessment undertaken. For many owners, the February letter constituted the first time they had been made aware of the fact that theirs was an affected home. That letter was addressed to 'the Resident' so in some cases went unread.
Following increasing public concerns about loose fill asbestos insulation, and the findings of the early asbestos assessments (some of which saw families vacate their homes, in some cases having been so directed in a prohibition notice issued by WorkSafe ACT under the Dangerous Substances Act 2004), in July 2014 the ACT Government established its Asbestos Response Taskforce (the Taskforce). The Taskforce's role is to provide a coordinated, comprehensive and compassionate response to this issue across three key functions:
- responding to the needs of affected families including by administering the ACT Government's emergency financial assistance package
- providing information to affected families and the wider community
- providing advice on approaches to securing an enduring solution to the presence of loose fill asbestos insulation in the affected homes.
In pursuit of the third task which is the subject of this report, the Taskforce has received invaluable assistance from Australian Government colleagues in the Department of Employment, Safe Work Australia, the Department of Defence, Comcare, and the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency. In preparing this advice, it has also liaised with officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development. It has consulted a list of experts recommended for this purpose by the Chief Executive Officer of Safe Work Australia3. The Taskforce has also made contact with the United Kingdom's Health and Safety Executive Asbestos Policy Unit and International Unit, which has advised it has limited current experience in relation to loose asbestos insulation in a residential setting. The Taskforce is also liaising with Region 8 of the United States' Environmental Protection Agency with the view to sharing experiences and learnings from that agency's management of asbestos contamination in vermiculite insulation in Libby, Montana.
The Taskforce is particularly grateful for the willingness of asbestos experts to share their knowledge and advice as it has worked through this issue. While there has been from the outset consensus as to the course of action required, this report draws on those discussions and others the Taskforce has had with licensed asbestos assessors and ACT Government colleagues including the Chief Health Officer and Work Safety Commissioner, and constitutes the advice of the Taskforce to the ACT Government. It has, however, been reviewed in its entirety and endorsed by Dr Ian R Gardner MBBS MPH FAFOEM, Senior Physician in Occupational & Environmental Medicine in the Department of Defence.
Where to now?
More than 20 years on from the original removal program, there exists a more nuanced understanding of the health impacts of exposure to airborne asbestos fibres than existed when that program was being designed, even if the contemporary conclusions in relation to the causal links between exposure and disease that underpinned it have not changed. Certainly, much more is known now about the extent of contamination of affected homes.
The consistently held view throughout the Taskforce's consultations on this issue is that there is no effective, practical and affordable method to render houses containing loose fill asbestos insulation safe to occupy in the long term. It is the similarly consistent view that most houses can, with significant effort, be rendered safe to occupy in the short to medium term. To do so would, however, require a level of restriction of the normal use of a property, vigilance and ongoing assessment and remediation that would be economically and socially unsustainable in the long term and for some people even in the short term.
The Taskforce has concluded, having listened to experts, asbestos assessors, and homeowners, that demolition of affected homes is the only enduring solution to the health risks posed by the presence of loose fill asbestos insulation in homes, and their attendant social, financial and practical consequences. The practicalities of living in homes that cannot easily be worked on or maintained, the already manifest negative market responses from prospective renters and purchasers, the social isolation – self-imposed and otherwise – of people fearful about contamination in their homes affecting family and strangers, and above all the risks to mental and physical health are so great as to demand what at first may seem an extreme response.
The Taskforce recognises the enormous reluctance and sadness with which this advice will be received by owners of affected homes, and that it may indeed be rejected by some. However, if the answer uniformly given when informed people are asked, 'Would you live in one?' is 'No', then with eyes open about how hard that will be for affected families and for the broader community, it is time to move on. Twenty years ago, significant effort and funds were expended in an ultimately failed attempt to deal with this issue. That cannot be allowed to occur again.
The Taskforce notes that even if demolition were not so strongly recommended, the nature of the work involved in the unavoidable second attempt at cleaning affected homes – which is likely to entail a full internal demolition and rebuild – is very significant and not that much different from that required to completely demolish an affected home. Furthermore, any approach short of demolition will leave loose fill asbestos fibres behind, likely contaminating the subfloor and attached to the remaining structure of houses. These fibres will remain a risk to the health of residents, tradespeople and visitors alike until the home is eventually demolished at the end of its useful life. A second cleaning process also does not deal with the stigma attaching – if not already attached - to affected homes, nor the attendant anxiety and mental health impacts of concerns for the safety and value of homes into the future.
The choice, therefore, is not between minor works now and demolition now: it is between significant works followed by demolition now; or significant works followed by ongoing physical and practical restrictions on the use of homes that will, even when works are completed, still be affected by loose fill asbestos insulation.
Given the original removal program’s unsuccessful attempt to solve this problem, the inevitable second program should, in the view of the Taskforce, place a premium on certainty and comprehensiveness. Above all, and recognising the magnitude of what is being recommended, it must pursue an enduring solution.