It came as no surprise to John and Trish Hagan when a letter arrived in the mail informing them their house had been insulated with potentially deadly loose-fill asbestos.
- Almost all Mr Fluffy homes have been demolished
- Families seeking to move on from ordeal
- Couple rebuilds identical house on same land
Their builder put it there four decades earlier.
The year was 1975 and they had no idea of the dangers, unlike the Federal Government which was first warned six years earlier about the “Mr Fluffy” product being pumped into roofs all over Canberra and parts of NSW.
The Hagans original Chapman home survived the 2003 bushfires only to be engulfed in the Mr Fluffy fiasco.
“[In the fire] the house caught alight in the corner … we were here with hoses and we put it out and had minimal damage but really we should have let it burn,” John said.
The Canberra couple are among the 1,023 families whose world came crashing down, one house at a time, in a demolition program announced by the ACT Government four years ago.
Some have rebuilt, many moved suburbs even cities and a small number are staying put for now.
They all have endured a period of great instability, anxiety and much bitterness as the dust settles on a dark chapter of Canberra’s history.
Almost identical house rises from the ashes
A sculpture of a phoenix greets visitors at the Hagans’ front door, a gift from their five children raised at the Chapman block but not in this house. It rose from the ashes of the original home built by their parents.
“We wanted some insulation in the roof and we asked our builder to do that and he did it,” Trish Hagan said.
“I’m not aware that we were aware that it was asbestos or if we were, asbestos was a very good material.”
At the time the product called Asbestosfluf was advertised as the “perfect thermal insulating material”.
Years later when the dangers became well known the Commonwealth, which managed the ACT before self-governance, paid for a mass clean-up operation in the late 1980s and early 90s. The Hagan house was part of that program.
“It was all fixed and that was the end of it … so we thought,” John said.
Homes were declared safe to live in but in 2014 traces of the potentially deadly microscopic fibres were found inside living areas of some homes, on pillows, in children’s cupboards and central heating systems.
The ACT Government launched a taskforce to manage the crisis and, on its advice, then-Chief Minister Katy Gallagher declared “we can’t leave a Mr Fluffy house standing in Canberra”.
“That was devastating … a shocker, we planned to stay here until we died,” Trish said.
“We were innocent victims and I think that it wasn’t quite managed well enough to share the cost around.”
What followed was a long, drawn-out process to get a crucial figure from the government to decide if they could afford to rebuild — how much did it want to buy back the land?
“That was enormously difficult to get from them I mean we’re talking years of trying to get that number,” John said.
But the couple found the money from retirement savings, tracked down their original architect and built a near identical home — the same sunroom, kitchen, living areas and balcony — even the balcony’s height is replicated.
“We’ve still got a bit of gardening to do but that’s a good challenge, otherwise I think it’s over for us and we’re back home,” John said.
John and Trish Hagan’s experience isn’t unique but they are in the minority. To date, 45 former owners have bought their blocks back to rebuild, with some only just moving into new homes.
Every cough makes you wonder
Buying her block back in the inner north suburb of Hackett was never an option for Felicity Prideaux, who was in the middle of renovating the house she bought in 2002.
“I realised two things: we probably would not be able to afford to buy back a block in Hackett … our block in fact was sold for $30,000 more than what they gave me for it and the fact of trying to rent with dogs was not going to be an easy option,” she said.
So she got out, selling up to the Government and moving across the border to Murrumbateman with her husband and beloved pug dogs.
Felicity Prideaux, whose house was destroyed in the Mr Fluffy buyback. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
“We have an amazing community out here it’s really fabulous, but the fact of the matter is how we got here is always going to be a giant scar on that,” she said.
Ms Prideaux has found solace in the Facebook group she’s a spokesperson for — the Mr Fluffy Homes Full Disclosure Group, which has more than 400 members.
The Fluffy crisis has taken a huge emotional toll on the affected families. More than 200 homeowners have accessed psychological support and relationship counselling paid for by the Government, with funding extended to at least June next year.
The physical effects of the crisis are harder to quantify. Researchers from the Australian National University studied the health impacts and confirmed a clear link between living in a Mr Fluffy house and contracting mesothelioma.
They painstakingly matched national Medicare data, death registrations and the Australian Cancer Database to track down seven cases of mesothelioma among current or former residents.
Ms Prideaux has been pushing for the Government to pay for health screenings test for former residents who want them.
“The nagging bad dreams and horrible thoughts, the what ifs, what could we be doing, what’s going to happen,” she said.
“Every cough that’s a bit different — my husband has a nagging cough as well, and it’s like where’s that come from?” she said.
Buyback scheme well ahead of original projections
Cleared blocks still dot Canberra’s established suburbs with 956 of the 1023 affected properties now demolished.
“Given the scheme is 94 per cent demolished I think the scheme is very much on track to be completed by the target of 2020-21,” Brett Phillips from the ACT planning directorate said.
Stronger revenue from Mr Fluffy land sales is helping the ACT budget bottom line. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
The overall hit to taxpayers now will not be as much, official forecasts have fallen from an overall cost of $400 million to $295 million.
“That really is a 25 per cent better return to the ACT community than was initially forecast in 2014,” Mr Phillips said.
The Government puts this down to demolitions getting cheaper and stronger land sales revenue.
The latest ACT budget forecasts the revenue to be $627 million, compared to $517 million in 2014-15.
“There has been quite an interest in take-up of affected properties that perhaps was provided on the conservative side when the initial forecasting was done,” Mr Phillips said.
Dual occupancy applications for Fluffy blocks under more special zoning rules have risen to 241, representing around a third of the blocks sold.