Two people in Mr Fluffy homes have been diagnosed with mesothelioma this year, spokeswoman for the Fluffy Owners and Residents Action Group, Brianna Heseltine, says, a revelation set to focus attention on the health risks of the homes.
Others living in homes contaminated with loose-fill asbestos had tumours and other diseases possibly linked to Mr Fluffy exposure, she said.
Acting chief health officer Andrew Pengilley confirmed the cases of mesothelioma, but said it was not possible to draw conclusions about the risk of living in a Mr Fluffy home. It was unknown how many people had lived in the homes since the insulation was installed more than 40 years ago.
Seven cases of mesothelioma had been diagnosed in Canberra last year, similar to previous years and to rates in other parts of Australia, he said.
Dr Pengilley believes the risk of disease from living in a Mr Fluffy home is low, based on rates in Wittenoom, an abandoned West Australian blue-asbestos mining town, and on studies of home renovators in the state.
At a health forum last week, he told residents background air in cities contained about 100 asbestos fibres per cubic metre, and buildings containing asbestos had 30 to 600 fibres per cubic metre. In Wittenoom, the air contained 900,000 fibres per cubic metre.
The death rate from asbestosis among mine workers was one to two out of 1000. The mesothelioma rate among residents of the town was 26 per 100,000 people per year. Among home renovators in Western Australia, four to six people per 100,000 per year got mesothelioma. Mr Fluffy exposure was likely to be much lower, he said.
“There is an exposure to asbestos [in Mr Fluffy homes]. We think there is a non-zero risk. There is some risk but we believe this risk is low and the diseases that people are concerned about related to asbestos are rare,” he said.
But Ms Heseltine said Wittenoom was quite different. Kilogram by kilogram, the highly refined Mr Fluffy asbestos was far more dangerous than ore.
"I would have thought it would have been wise to ask people what asbestos-related diseases they have before telling them not to worry," she said, incensed at Dr Pengilley’s approach.
“Dr Pengilley presented Wittenoom as the worst-case example to the room while ignoring the fact that the people in front of him had been exposed to a worse substance without ever having the benefit of being studied by health experts,” she said. She called for a longitudinal study of everyone who has lived in a Mr Fluffy home.
Dr Pengilley said he was not trying to diminish the seriousness. “Saying there is a low risk of illness does not mean we’re saying that is an unimportant situation or that everything’s okay or that things shouldn’t be done to fix it,” he said.
He was still considering whether a study of residents was feasible and would produce meaningful results, given the fact that asbestos diseases are rare and the period between exposure and disease was long.
Ms Heseltine is encouraging residents to register with the national asbestos exposure register maintained by the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency, which will track Mr Fluffy exposure.
Agency head Peter Tighe backed her view that disease rates among renovators in Western Australia working mainly on bonded asbestos had little relevance to Mr Fluffy. Loose-fill amosite asbestos was practically pure, with no bonding agent, and the most virulent form around, he said.
“If you’re going to give advice you should be relating to information on the specific product,” he said. “I’m not saying you should go out there and create paranoia, but what you should do is be quite clearly honest and say, in relation to this product we don’t have a great deal of information ... For someone to come out and say you really shouldn’t be worried about it, quite frankly is misinformation.”
Mr Tighe said does not accept that houses can be sealed to make them safe in the long term, and has called for Mr Fluffy homes to be demolished.