Authorities anticipating an upsurge in anxiety about the health risks of Mr Fluffy asbestos exposure with the release of the list of contaminated houses today are moving to reassure people.
ACT chief health officer Paul Kelly said while there was no safe level of exposure, for people living in a Fluffy home the risk of asbestos-related disease was low, and for visitors and people exposed for a short time to a small amount, the risk was extremely low.
"There is a risk. The risk is high if you have very high exposure, the risk is very low, almost zero, if you have very low exposure," he said.
"The risk of physical illness related to asbestos is directly proportional to intensity and duration of exposure, so for people that are exposed to a small amount of asbestos not very often for a very short period, they will have a much lower risk than someone who is surrounded by asbestos fibres every day in their workplace."
For visitors or parents of children who might have had sleepovers at affected houses, "there's not a lot to worry about", he said. "It's really an individual decision to be made by parents. For occasional visits for short periods to a house, particularly if it's well maintained, the increased risk of mesothelioma from that sort of exposure is extremely low."
Former residents should seek advice from their GP. The main concern was for people with ongoing long-term exposure, or exposure from houses that had not been well-maintained, and for tradespeople.
Asbestos exposure caused mesothelioma and lung cancer, but there were only 10 cases of mesothelioma a year in Canberra, Dr Kelly said. There were 40 times as many women diagnosed with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer, and in terms of long-term cancer risk, one in three women and one in two men would be diagnosed with cancer by 85. The chances of that being mesothelioma were "so low as something you wouldn't worry about".
"Even in the cases where there has been massive exposure every day over a number of years, in Wittenoom [the Western Australian asbestos mining town], for example, even then only a very small proportion of people go on to develop these serious diseases. Mesothelioma is actually extremely rare," Dr Kelly said.
But smokers should quit, with the risk of developing lung cancer much higher among smokers exposed to asbestos than the asbestos risk and smoking risk put together. Tradespeople should take the risks very seriously, ensuring protection not just from loose-fill asbestos but from asbestos fibro sheeting, lagging around pipes and other forms. Cleaners and others should be aware and take precautions.
Anyone concerned about their health should visit their GP and for anxiety also consult Lifeline or Beyond Blue.
Mr Fluffy asbestos is a pure form of loose asbestos fibre pumped into ceilings as insulation, unlike most asbestos in homes which is bonded in wall sheeting or sprayed, keeping fibres contained.
Because its use as loose insulation is believed to have been unique to Canberra and parts of NSW, very little is known about the risks, with authorities basing assessments on studies of workplace exposure to other forms of asbestos and exposure through mining.
With two cases of mesothelioma among Mr Fluffy asbestos diagnosed in the first months of last year alone, then acting chief health officer Andrew Pengilley told residents background air in cities contained about 100 asbestos fibres per cubic metre. The air in Wittenoom contained 900,000 fibres per cubic metre, with a death rate from asbestosis among mine workers of one or two out of 1000, and a mesothelioma rate among residents of the town of 26 per 100,000 people per year.
The ACT government is funding a Australian National University-led study to try to pin down the specific risk of living in a Fluffy home, and is encouraging all former owners and tenants to register.
Lead researcher Dr Martyn Kirk said analysis of mesothelioma data so far suggested Canberra had fewer cases than the national average, but it might be that people developed disease after they had left the city.
Dr Kirk's team will compare national Medicare databases since 1984 with state-held cancer databases to track disease among Fluffy residents.
It would shortly hold two focus groups, each with 20 randomly chosen Mr Fluffy residents, to understand the kinds of activities that might have contributed to exposure in homes, Dr Kirk said. Later in the year, Fluffy owners and former residents would be surveyed.
The government is encouraging anyone who has lived in or worked on a Mr Fluffy house over the past 50 years to register with the Asbestos Taskforce from 5am on Wednesday.
The ACT Asbestos Response Taskforce can be contacted at
People who are anxious or concerned can access support through their GP, ACT Medicare Local on 6287 8066, Lifeline 13 1 114, and Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.