Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has written to the friends and family of a Canberra mesothelioma sufferer who grew up in a "Mr Fluffy" house, saying federal bureaucrats were actively investigating a new fund for compensation.
- James Wallner contracted mesothelioma after living in a Mr Fluffy home as a child and being exposed to asbestos
- He could not claim compensation through existing schemes
- The federal government is now considering a compensation scheme for victims who were not exposed to asbestos through work
Last year veterinary scientist James Wallner, 54, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma - a disease only caused by exposure to asbestos.
But while most Australian asbestos victims were exposed while working in the construction industry, or as home renovators, Mr Wallner's can be traced back to the house he grew up in and a seemingly innocent childhood game.
"I immediately thought of the home I lived in," Mr Wallner told 7.30.
"I knew it was a Mr Fluffy home. I just didn't think I could be that unlucky."
He was just a toddler when the ceilings of his Canberra home were crammed with loose-fill asbestos insulation. It was a new product sold by an enterprising Canberra tradie named Dirk Jansen, better known as Mr Fluffy.
His brother Bruce has vivid recollections of playing with a mound of asbestos that was left in the garage.
"I do remember that they left this tarpaulin with this mound of very sticky, attractive, dirty white fluffy stuff," he said.
"We had no idea what it was of course, but it did make terrific floaty snowballs that exploded on impact when you threw them at your brother."
James Wallner says he was told he may only live 12 months from diagnosis, and while he "tries not to count", it has now been eight months.
"I can certainly feel that the disease is progressing," he said.
"The average age is 75 for someone with mesothelioma ... [so] at 54, I felt very ripped off."
Compensation black hole
Most Australian asbestos victims came into contact with products made by the multinational construction giant James Hardie.
After a long and painful process, a compensation scheme was set up at James Hardie's expense, and has provided payments to many sufferers.
But James Wallner's case is different.
Because the Mr Fluffy enterprise no longer exists there is no company to sue.
Neither the ACT government nor the federal government has accepted any legal liability for what happened.
Just over a thousand Canberra homes were treated with the Mr Fluffy product over 10 years from 1968 to 1978, despite scientists raising concerns about the safety of the product with ACT Health authorities within the first year. At the time, those were federal health authorities under Commonwealth control. The ACT was not given the right to govern itself until 1989.
Former ABC broadcaster James O'Loghlin has been advocating, on his sick friend's behalf, for a new compensation scheme.
"The fact that some bloke went into his roof and put this stuff that's going to kill him there, a year after the Commonwealth had this report saying it was against best public health practices and potentially hazardous, you think: how and why did this happen?" he told 7.30.
"Why didn't that report go anywhere? It's wrong."
Jonathan Walsh, a lawyer at Maurice Blackburn who specialises in asbestos, says the Commonwealth has no legal duty of care because there was no law against what Mr Fluffy was doing at the time.
But he says the federal government does at least have a "moral culpability" for what went on in Canberra in the 70s.
"One hopes that the Commonwealth government gets off the bench and into the game," Mr Walsh said.
New fund being investigated
While the ACT government has given Mr Wallner a so-called "act of grace" payment to cover his significant medical expenses, there has never been any mechanism for people in his situation to access broader compensation for loss of life and income.
But in a written reply to Mr Wallner's friends and family dated March 25, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was "sympathetic" to the request for a new compensation scheme for "non-occupational victims of asbestos" - or people who were not exposed through work.
He confirmed federal bureaucrats were now "investigating the proposal of establishing such a fund", and would "work as quickly as possible with the ACT government officials on this matter".
Mr Wallner says his main focus now has to be on pain management.
But he says the compensation scheme is "important for people who follow me".
"It's the one exposure form, as a bystander, where you are not eligible for compensation," he said.
"I'm only one person."
Nearly all the Mr Fluffy homes in Canberra were destroyed over several years from 2014 onwards when the ACT government sent in the bulldozers.
But some are believed to still be standing, and it isn't yet clear if more mesothelioma victims who were exposed in similar circumstances will come forward.
James O'Loghlin says he will not rest until a compensation scheme is up and running.
"We're not going to stop coming," Mr O'Loghlin said.
"And if James [Wallner] is gone, next year there'll be another one, and another one. And we'll give them whatever help we can, until it's done."