Asbestos is the name given to a group of naturally occurring mineral fibres that have been mined and processed for thousands of years. In Australia, asbestos came into widespread industrial use and as a building material for the construction of houses and commercial properties during the second half of the 20th century, due to its ability to withstand heat, fire and water-resistant properties until it started to be phased out in the 1980s before ultimately being banned in this country from 31 December 2003. One of its common uses was as loose-fill insulation.
Manufactured from raw crushed asbestos, loose-fill asbestos was commonly installed in roof spaces as ceiling insulation. Loose-fill asbestos is friable – that is, it can be crumbled, pulverised or reduced to powder where tiny fibres can be released into the air and inhaled.
The Mr. Fluffy incident, which refers to widespread asbestos contamination around the suburbs of Canberra, reminds us of the importance of always being aware of and managing the risks associated with asbestos in your workplace as well as in and around the home.
What is ‘Mr. Fluffy’?
The story of Mr. Fluffy spans decades. A Canberra-based company, more commonly referred to as ‘Mr. Fluffy,’ marketed 'asbestosfluf' as a cheap and effective material for insulation. Other operators, including contractors and subcontractors, are since understood to have used the same product to insulate buildings in regional areas surrounding Canberra and parts of NSW.
Mr. Fluffy was sprayed into roof spaces where the loose-fill asbestos insulation was comprised of amosite (brown or grey asbestos). Additional investigation has also identified instances of crocidolite, which is claimed to pose an even greater risk to health than amosite.
While asbestos-containing materials are bonded, the Mr. Fluffy insulation was not held together with any bonding agent. If disturbed, asbestos fibres can move from the ceiling to other areas of the home, such as walls, sub-floor areas, cupboards, heating and cooling ducts and vents, living areas and bedrooms. Exposure to asbestos occurs when fibres become airborne and are breathed in or ingested, primarily from contaminated air in the working environment, as well as from ambient air in the vicinity of point sources or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable asbestos materials.
At the time, there was little knowledge about the dangers of exposure to asbestos. Subsequently, exposure to asbestos has been linked to the development of mesothelioma, lung cancer and other serious and potentially fatal respiratory diseases.
Mr. Fluffy loose-fill asbestos advertisement from the 1960s.
Image Credit: National Library of Australia
Asbestos-related diseases can be contracted by breathing in tiny airborne particles when asbestos-containing material is disturbed. The World Health Organization (WHO) states there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. As an asbestos-related disease, mesothelioma is fatal and incurable. Mortality rates associated with other asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer and asbestosis, are also very high.
Response to the Mr. Fluffy asbestos contamination
Following increasing public awareness of the carcinogenic nature of inhaled asbestos fibres, Australian jurisdictions have over a period of time introduced bans on asbestos use, initially in building and construction materials. The Mr. fluffy incident provided the basis for a government-funded eradication program that commenced in the 1990s. In October 2014, the ACT Government announced the Buyback and Demolition program when further evidence emerged of persisting asbestos contamination in some previously remediated homes and to mitigate the ongoing risk of mesothelioma. Health and safety issues associated with the use and /or handling of asbestos is regulated in the ACT mainly through the Dangerous Substances Act 2004 and the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 and their associated regulations.
The NSW Government announced a similar approach in 2015 by establishing a Voluntary Purchase and Demolition Program and Assistance Package. Under this program, homeowners, tradespeople, local councils and others can use this register to determine if a property has loose-fill asbestos by searching a street address. The NSW Government’s Fair Trading website also provides homeowners with more information about rights and responsibilities for home owners of an asbestos contaminated property.
In May 2021, the Federal government announced plans to set up a financial assistance scheme of $8 million to support victims of loose-fill asbestos used in Canberra homes up until the 1970s. Under this scheme, Canberrans who develop asbestos-related illnesses because of living in "Mr. Fluffy" homes can make a claim for financial assistance through the Asbestos Disease Assistance Scheme. This recent announcement yet again reminds us how the dangerous asbestos practices of the past will continue to be with us for many years to come due to continued exposures and the long latency periods between exposure and the onset of asbestos-related diseases.
Raising awareness of the dangers of asbestos today
Despite the national ban on the use of asbestos in Australia, the continued existence of the substance in older buildings and structures means people today, including many workers, still face the risk of being exposed to asbestos as part of their day-to-day work.
The health risks involved with poor asbestos management simply cannot be ignored. Organisations and events are engaged in advocacy work and providing information on the dangers of asbestos. Events such as Mesothelioma Awareness Day (September 26) and both National Asbestos Awareness Week and National Asbestos Month in November, help provide a reminder and increase awareness that educates the public about the dangers of asbestos exposure.
National Asbestos Awareness Week
(22 - 28 November)
This year, the campaign asks Australians to: Think Twice About Asbestos.
The campaign challenges complacency by reminding home renovators and tradespeople that the danger of asbestos is far from over. Particularly because more people have more time for DIY projects during the COVID pandemic, it’s important to be aware of the dangers.
Further information is available at www.asbestossafety.gov.au.
National Asbestos Month
(1 - 30 November)
November is National Asbestos Awareness Month and combined with abestos.awareness.com.au, the annual event aims to educate about the dangers of asbestos and how best to manage it.
During Asbestos Awareness Month, you can host a ‘Blue Lamington Drive’ to raise awareness of asbestos in homes and help raise vital funds for the Asbestos Disease Research Institute and Support Groups by visiting: www.bluelamington.com.
Testing for asbestos
With increased awareness and knowledge of the risks of asbestos exposure, it’s important to take the risks seriously and appropriately manage any suspecting asbestos materials. This means having materials tested and then removed or remediated as a means to resolve the hazard. Do you think you have asbestos in your home or business premises? Perhaps you are not sure about a substance in your building or DIY project?
If you suspect your home or commercial premises contains loose fill asbestos, your first step is to get it tested in a NATA accredited laboratory like Envirolab Services. Our highly experienced team provides laboratory testing of air, soil, water as well as a range of other materials, such as fibro and vinyl tiles. Fast turnarounds are available to meet your requirements.
Contact us now to learn more about our asbestos testing services or even how to properly perform an asbestos test.
For information on loose-fill asbestos ceiling insulation material installed by Mr Fluffy during the 1960s and 1970s in the ACT, please visit asbestostaskforce.act.gov.au. If in NSW, please contact Service NSW on 13 77 88 or visit NSW Fair Trading Loose Fill Asbestos Task Force.
Safe Work Australia codes of practice and guides for safe management of asbestos. Removal of asbestos must be in accordance with Safe Work Australia’s Model Code of Practice: How to safely remove asbestos July 2020.