ACT News

Study to probe national Medicare database and state-held cancer databases in attempt to get to the bottom of Mr Fluffy health risk

Researchers aiming to assess the health impact of living in Mr Fluffy asbestos-contaminated homes will seek access to the national Medicare database and state-held cancer databases from around the country.

The two-year study will aim to get a list of everyone who has ever lived in a Mr Fluffy home, using the Medicare database which tracks back to 1984 and includes addresses, then compare those names with the cancer databases. Mesothelioma records go back to 1982. The aim is to come up with a risk level for living in a Fluffy home.

Chief investigator at the ANU Martyn Kirk says his team will look for patterns in the ACT mesothelioma database
Chief investigator at the ANU Martyn Kirk says his team will look for patterns in the ACT mesothelioma database  Photo: Rohan Thomson

The study, by the Australian National University's Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, reaches well beyond the ACT, with authorities pointing out on Monday that former Mr Fluffy residents could have scattered around the country over nearly 50 years.

Mr Fluffy loose-fill asbestos insulation was pumped into more than 1000 homes in the ACT from 1968 and throughout the 1970s. The homes have changed hands many times since, with an analysis of sales data just since 1992 showing nearly a quarter of the Fluffy cohort have changed hands three or more times since then.

The work will also capture tenants who have lived in the homes. It will need the approval of ethics committees, the permission of other jurisdictions to access cancer information, and the Commonwealth's permission to use the Medicare information.

Asked about the likelihood of getting that approval, chief investigator at the ANU Martyn Kirk said that kind of research was becoming more common, and was routine in areas such as Scandinavia.

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As well as cross matching databases for mesothelioma, lung cancer and other cancers, his team would look for patterns in the ACT mesothelioma database, talk with residents in focus groups about their health, and consider likely exposure from living in a home and activities such as renovating.

Asked whether he expected to find a strong link between living in a My Fluffy home and mesothelioma, he said, "I'd probably be more concerned about the other alternative which is that we won't find anything, just because we know that the risk is incredibly low."

Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly said authorities had already found no significant increase in the number of cases of mesothelioma in the ACT in recent years compared with previous years, nor compared with the rest of the country. He would have expected to see a rise by now, given evidence suggesting cases began 10 to 15 years after exposure.

The problem for Fluffy homes was that cancer databases only had the current address at the time of diagnosis, not previous addresses.

The study would ensure confidentiality and privacy, he said.

Asked about health risks for tradespeople who had worked on Fluffy homes, Mr Kelly said the focus for now was on residents. "Tradespeople definitely are at risk and that has been recognised throughout Australia, working with asbestos of any kind. If it's friable asbestos it can be a great problem and there are national approaches looking at tradespeople and their risk," he said.

Health Minister Simon Corbell said the study had been commissioned in response to residents' concerns, in the hope of providing definitive advice on the risks. While all the advice to government had been that the risk was low, no one had been able to say there was no risk.

"We are very much entering into unknown waters. The presence of loose-fill asbestos in the residential environment is unique here in Canberra in terms of its spread and possible impact, so we are having to chart our own course," he said.

Maurice Blackburn head of national asbestos practice Theodora Ahilas said the study would provide solid data, but should be longer than two years.

"There needs to be the capacity to monitor children who have been exposed and who may not suffer any ill effects for decades, as well as older people now who have lived in Mr Fluffy homes for decades," she said. "There can't be a sunset clause – people won't stop getting sick in two years' time, conceivably people could be diagnosed in 2050 because they were exposed in the past 12 months."

Australia was seeing a "third wave" of mesothelioma caused by environmental exposure, home demolition, home renovation and exposures as children.

Also collaborating in the research is Emeritus Professor Bruce Armstrong from the University of Sydney, and Associate Professor Mark Clements from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.