More than a quarter of a century ago, this newspaper celebrated prematurely what appeared to be a resolution to the Mr Fluffy crisis. "For many Canberra families, the asbestos nightmare is fading," read The Canberra Times editorial of October 12, 1988. The Commonwealth had just announced it would help pay to remove the deadly, loose fibres used to insulate more than 1000 houses across the ACT. It was a costly but necessary act to eliminate what the government had been advised was "a public health asbestos problem far greater than any documented elsewhere in the world".
Yet the nightmare did not recede; for many, it worsened. The botched execution of that initial remediation program allowed a new generation to become potentially exposed to loose-fill asbestos. The ACT Asbestos Response Taskforce estimates about 30,000 people have lived in the houses since Mr Fluffy insulation was used. Many of those residents moved in after the supposed clean-up was completed.
Today, thousands of Canberrans will learn for the first time that they are among the unlucky ones: those who once lived, or perhaps worked in, a home contaminated with the toxic material. The ACT government has released the list of houses it will demolish over the coming five years. Some former owners and tenants of these properties already know of their past exposure. Unauthorised lists of the "Fluffy houses" have circulated among tradespeople, ACT public servants and their friends and families since last year. Some present owners also felt obligated morally to find and tell past owners and tenants.
However, today's news will traumatise many others who were unaware of their past exposure. They might have left the contaminated homes years ago but that won't dull the terror of not knowing what is to come, whether for them or their children. Although few people exposed to the fibre develop asbestos-related diseases, there is no way to test, in the intervening decades, whether that fate has been avoided.
Some present owners, too, will despair at the release of this list. They may believe that identifying their property violates their privacy. Some have found it easier to cope with their burden by withholding knowledge of it even from those dearest to them.
Nonetheless, despite the inevitable grief it will cause, the affected houses must be identified publicly; indeed, it is happening by default as the government erects fences around the sites. The Canberra Times first sought formal access to this list over a year ago. We believed the community, especially former residents, had a right to know immediately of their potential exposure to a deadly toxin, so they could take steps to monitor their health and seek advice – medical and perhaps legal, too.
The ACT government acknowledged more than six months ago that "the balance of arguments now sits with release, rather than withholding the list". Yet there is never an easy time to deliver devastating news. Today, many Canberrans will need the support of their community. But, as tough as these moments are, this city is now another step closer to putting an end to the asbestos nightmare for good.
People seeking information from the Asbestos Response Taskforce can use these contacts:
People who are anxious or concerned can access support through their GP, ACT Medicare Local on 6287 8066, Lifeline (13 11 14) and Beyond Blue (1300 224 636).