More than 1,000 Canberra families whose homes were demolished to remove the threat of Mr Fluffy’s bulk insulation will soon have a dedicated public place to commemorate the homes and loved ones lost to the asbestos crisis .
- A forest shelter will be built at the National Arboretum, designed as a place to reflect on Mr Fluffy’s crisis
- Mr Fluffy’s loose asbestos insulation was used in the 60s and 70s in the Canberra area
- Opinions of former residents of Mr. Fluffy’s homes are divided on the place of reflection
The “place of reflection” will be housed at the National Arboretum, in the form of a forest shelter. Although its exact location has yet to be determined.
Sustainable Building Minister Rebecca Vassarotti said the shelter would be part of the healing process for thousands of Canberrans, who owned, lived or worked in a Mr Fluffy home – including 1,029 in 56 suburbs.
“We heard from the Canberra community that creating a place of reflection was a really important way to really mark what happened,” Ms Vassarotti said.
“It was important to find a location that belonged to all Canberrans and was also accessible.”
The National Arboretum in Canberra already houses other memorial gardens, including the AIDS Garden of Reflection and the Gift of Life Garden to commemorate organ and tissue donation.
“Losing the garden was as serious as losing the house”
In 2019, a community and expert reference group recommended a memorial, similar to that erected in memory of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, made up of plant cuttings that not only represented the homes lost by Mr Fluffy’s families, but also their gardens.
Former Fluffy owner Kathleen Read lovingly tended her Watson garden before reluctantly selling her property to the ACT government as part of its 2014 buyout scheme.
In her old home, she had created her own backyard sanctuary for her family, affectionately called a “secret garden” by a neighbor, due to the deliberate planting around the fence.
“Losing the garden was…it was hard, it was as bad as losing the house,” she said.
For Kathleen, the place of reflection planned by the government at the arboretum means “absolutely nothing”.
“To me, I think it’s their way of accepting that, yeah, it happened, but setting up this thing, this shelter… out of the way,” she said.
During the takeovers, the ACT government stored the keys to over 1,000 homes, and Kathleen would prefer them to be used in an exhibition or installation.
“Hang them in the Legislative Chamber where it’s a constant reminder to them that people vote for them and that they’re supposed to have some compassion for how they treat people,” a- she declared.
Ongoing concern about potential health risk
But another former Fluffy owner, Jennifer Cameron, thinks the place of reflection is a “good idea”.
“I think people who don’t know anything about it will of course be interested, I guess,” she said.
“People who are residents of Mr. Fluffy – who have lost their homes – I just think it’s a place we can go and remember that, those who want to. I guess there are some who do not want.”
Jennifer and her husband Ian are now settled in their new West Belconnen home after moving to a few suburbs more than seven years ago, but unease over the potential health risk to their now adult children remains a lingering concern.
The ABC asked the Loose Fill Asbestos Coordinating Team for the official number of deaths linked to Mr Fluffy’s asbestos exposure and was told there were “no records available to understand or quantify the full extent of people in our community who have had exposure risks.” .
A 2017 ANU study established seven cases of mesothelioma among Mr. Fluffy residents over a 30-year period.
In March, the ACT government set up a $16 million Asbestos Disease Support Program to provide financial support to those exposed to loose asbestos insulation.
Since then, the program has paid “less than 10” claims, for an estimated total of $3.4 million.
It was created after the advocacy of James Wallner, who devoted the last months of his life to campaigning for justice for the victims of asbestos. He died in 2021 from mesothelioma caused by exposure as a child living in a Mr Fluffy home.
It was the then Commonwealth government that allowed asbestos insulation to be pumped into homes in the nation’s capital between 1968 and 1979.
“What we can learn from these kinds of experiences”
A subsequent attempt to “clean up” homes in the late 1980s and early 1990s did not work, leading to the decision – 50 years after Mr Fluffy began trading – to demolish all affected houses.
A total of 1,010 residential properties have now been demolished with 19 known homes remaining, although Mr Fluffy’s homes have been newly discovered in recent years.
The ACT government is now seeking community feedback on the proposed messages and accompanying stories told through the forest shelter.
“We hope this will be seen as a really positive move in terms of recognizing the experience of thousands of people in Canberra,” Ms Vassarotti said.
“Telling people’s stories in terms of what it meant to them and what we can learn from those kinds of experiences.”
Jennifer Cameron offered a single message: that the mistakes of the past “never happen again because the government knew it was asbestos and let it continue”.