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Asbestos warning

HUNDREDS of unsuspecting ACT businesses could contain the same sort of deadly ''fluffy'' asbestos removed from Canberra homes because the buildings were ''outside the scope'' of a $100million clean-up funded by the Federal Government in the late 1980s, an expert says.

And across the border, Queanbeyan Council and MPs say for the past 20 years up to 50 Queanbeyan families have lived unaware of the toxic fibres hanging over their heads.

Bureaucratic ''buck-passing'' over whether local, state or federal governments should foot the removal bill was blamed.

Asbestos experts say a single broken or dislodged roof tile is all that's needed to unleash the deadly ''fluffy'' fibres, which are more dangerous than the bonded form of asbestos commonly found in sheets of construction board or wrapped around pipes across Australia.

Speaking exclusively to the Sunday Canberra Times, former ACT Asbestos Removal Program general manager Keith McKenry said commercial premises across the Canberra region could contain the fibrous form of asbestos, because businesses were excluded from the program to decontaminate about 1050 Canberra homes shortly before the territory became self-governing.

''We never actually finished the job in the ACT, or even started it in Queanbeyan,'' Dr McKenry said.


''Any older building in the ACT with a gabled roof that isn't a family home wasn't included in the audit and could contain loose-fill asbestos.

''We saw day-care centres, cafes and all manner of other small business people who were worried they had the stuff in the roof, but we couldn't really help them because commercial buildings were out of our scope. We could give them advice, but anything that wasn't residential was excluded from the [removal] program.''

Across the border, bickering between the Queanbeyan City Council, the NSW Government and the Federal Government about responsibility for residential removal costs left home owners in limbo.

A Queanbeyan City Council spokesman told the Sunday Canberra Times that 11 homes were known to contain ''fluffy'' insulation used extensively across the ACT region until the late 1970s. But according to official council estimates, up to 50 more families were either unaware their home was contaminated with toxic loose-fill asbestos, or stayed silent for fear their property's value would plummet.

Those unable to pay the estimated $100,000 or more removal cost themselves were told by the council to simply ''tape up'' vents. The council offered to analyse insulation samples brought in by the public, but failed to investigate further, despite two of the first 18 tests proving positive.

Dr McKenry said that the fear finding fluffy asbestos in the ceiling could make house prices fall through the floor meant an ''out of sight, out of mind'' mentality prevailed as the silent killer substance settled on Queanbeyan family homes, food preparation areas around the ACT region, and even in health and child-care facilities.

''The Queanbeyan Council saw the prices for removal, saw the effect on house prices and that people couldn't sell, and they did nothing,'' Dr McKenry said.

''Worse than nothing. In fact, when the Queanbeyan Council told people to grab a bit of the insulation from their roof and bring it in, it was the absolute diametric opposite of what public health guidelines dictate. It was shocking, the worst possible piece of advice they could have given people.

''The NSW Government and Queanbeyan municipal authorities are failing to discharge properly their responsibility to exercise due care and to safeguard the safety of their citizens, which has always seemed to me to be a fundamental responsibility of government.''

Former Labor state member for Monaro, Steve Whan, who now sits in the NSW upper house, admitted he was unable to make any progress for his Queanbeyan constituents on the issue during five years of negotiations, despite his party being in power at the time.

''It's an issue that has been buck-passed for years,'' Mr Whan said. ''I felt it would have been appropriate for shared state and local funding.

''But the argument that kept coming back when I lobbied on this issue is that it would set a precedent that the state government would have to pay for all asbestos removal. In my view, the loose-fill asbestos is an isolated problem to this area and it wouldn't set a precedent to remove it.''

The federal MP for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, who saw the devastating effects of asbestos-related disease during his time in the army, urged the NSW Government to resolve the issue by removing the asbestos.

''It's a terrible situation for these home owners to be in after all this time,'' Mr Kelly said.