Illustration: Pat Campbell
Two Sundays ago, Jack Waterford wandered into the Mr Fluffy asbestos battlefield in a Hawaiian shirt and thongs, and told its soldiers to suck it up and go back to their asbestos-riddled barracks. As the self-appointed major-general of that brave army, I am grateful to The Canberra Times for publishing this reply to such a highly acclaimed journalist. I hope to convince Mr Waterford and the reader that there is in fact a strong case for the use of tax money to allow Australians to reclaim their health and property law rights from the scourge of Mr Fluffy asbestos.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a small business operator known locally as Mr Fluffy installed an affordable type of loose fill insulation in approximately 1100 Canberra and Queanbeyan homes. It is worth considering what somebody with cautious views might think about the ongoing presence of Mr Fluffy asbestos in Australian homes. In the chapter, One Fibre Can Kill: The Great Asbestos Scam, from the bestseller, Scared To Death: From BSE To Global Warming – Why Scares Are Costing Us The Earth, the British sceptic Christopher Booker points to the misconceptions perpetuated on exposure risk by the use of the word "asbestos" to describe two very different types of minerals.
Bonded fibro sheeting is indeed rife around Australia, as Mr Waterford notes. As Mr Booker suggests, the much commoner and very different white asbestos fibres have a half-life of only a few days, causing lung damage and possibly cancer with heavy occupational exposure. The blue and brown asbestos used by Mr Fluffy are two varieties of a different category of iron silicates known as amphiboles, which are far more dangerous:
"When breathed in, the longer of their straight, narrow, sharp, acid-resistant ﬁbres can penetrate the lungs and surrounding tissue in such a way that they cannot be dissolved or removed by the body's defences. They are so persistent in the lungs that their 'half-life' is estimated at up to 150 years or more. It is the build-up of such ineradicable ﬁbres which gives rise to potentially fatal disease." [Booker at p 275]
So much for the slippery elm tonic which a kind member of the public suggested I spoon out to my children after an assessor found brown asbestos in our heating system.
Mr Waterford notes the Commonwealth and ACT governments spent $100 million to purportedly remove Mr Fluffy asbestos from Canberra homes between 1988 and 1993, while leaving Queanbeyan in the dust. Instead of citing this fact to argue against further intervention, I think our new understanding of the ongoing contamination in Canberra homes should trigger a broader national response to right the worst wrong in the history of this sorry saga.
The cynic in me suspects the Commonwealth only originally stumped up funds for Canberra because it ignored a report it commissioned in 1968 that raised serious concerns about Mr Fluffy's use of asbestos as insulation, instead allowing the business to operate for another decade. When announcing its clean-up program in Canberra in 1988 – the year before the ACT assumed self-government – the Commonwealth hastened to add that it was acting in the interests of public health, and denounced any admission of legal liability. If public health was indeed the moral touchstone for its decision, then I put it to Mr Waterford that the Commonwealth would have been equally inclined and indeed, justified, to fund the clean-up in Queanbeyan.
Mr Waterford reminds us that we live in a complex society with many competing needs, and where justice is not always restored after the fickle hand of fortune turns against us. To me, such causes highlight the need for those with authority to rise up as champions instead of detractors, however expedient the latter path may be.
Mr Waterford points out that some people with disabilities can access compensation to fund a higher quality of living than those on disability support pensions. I am not minded to argue for the erosion of the legal rights of victims of negligence simply because some lack that remedy. Rather, I draw Mr Waterford's attention to the fact that we contribute to a system of taxation to provide an essential albeit basic safety net for those people. I believe it is the fundamental role of governments to safeguard our basic rights in every setting, and most especially in the face of human hardship.
Chief Minister Gallagher and the Attorney-General have rightly accorded high priority to the development of an appropriate government response to the health and financial security issues posed by contaminated homes. The ACT government is responding decisively to the recent growing evidence from asbestos experts which casts serious doubts on the safety of some of our homes. Right now in Clovelly Park, the South Australian government is planning to move residents because of a carcinogenic substance detected in air, water and soil. There are other precedents involving the resumption of former sheep dip sites. I find it hard to understand why Mr Waterford would suggest that swift action should not be taken to end a hidden health crisis involving mesothelioma.
As disasters go, this one won't cost taxpayers anywhere near as much as the $5 billion national flood package announced by the prime minister after the 2010-11 Queensland floods. Unlike a flood, our residents must grapple with massive economic loss without insurance, and with the knowledge that if we survive the rising tide, we might be taken out the other end by asbestos disease.
Brianna Heseltine is a spokeswoman for the Fluffy Owners and Residents' Action Group.