A Canberra man who contracted mesothelioma after playing in deadly loose-fill asbestos as a toddler has been awarded more than $250,000 by the ACT Government to cover his medical treatment, despite the territory laying the blame for his suffering squarely with the Commonwealth.
- James Wallner played with Mr Fluffy asbestos as a boy, contracting mesothelioma in his 50s
- He has not been awarded legal compensation by the Commonwealth, which oversaw the Mr Fluffy program
- The ACT Government has paid him $250,000 to cover medical costs, but does not take responsibility
James Wallner, 54, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma earlier this year and called on the ACT Government to establish a compensation fund to support his and future ‘Mr Fluffy’ mesothelioma cases.
In a statement to the ABC, Chief Minister Andrew Barr committed to investigating a scheme for future victims, but confirmed an “act of grace” payment had been made to Mr Wallner to go towards his medical costs.
It is the first time any level of government has paid out any claim for sickness associated with the so-called ‘Mr Fluffy’ loose-fill asbestos saga.
‘Not so angry now’: Funds relieve financial burden of treatment
Mr Wallner was just a young child when he and his three brothers had a “snowball fight” with piles of loose-fill asbestos in the garage of their home in Canberra’s inner north.
They had no idea of the damage they were doing.
Fifty years later, Mr Wallner was diagnosed with the incurable condition, one of the first-known Mr Fluffy residents to contract the disease.
According to data from the Australian Mesothelioma Registry, the average time between diagnosis and death was only 11 months.
His family launched a bid for government compensation, with concerns his expensive medical treatment would cripple them financially.
In a letter obtained by the ABC, ACT Chief Minister and Treasurer Andrew Barr said he had now agreed to an “act of grace” payment of $251,474 to help Mr Wallner cover two years of medical expenses.
A larger claim, covering the former veterinary surgeon’s loss of income and superannuation, pain and suffering, is still being assessed by the government, but the family has welcomed the initial payment.
“It’s just an enormous weight off our mind,” Mr Wallner said.
James’ wife Linda Wallner said their initial shock of his mesothelioma diagnosis had changed to anger when it was obvious he was not likely to win any legal bid for compensation.
“Not so angry now, and that means that you can concentrate on just getting the best treatment,” she said.
Mr Wallner said his treatment was prohibitively expensive, as it included a new generation immunotherapy drug costing more than $8,500 every three weeks.
The drug, Keytruda, is considered effective in treating melanoma and some lung cancers, but is not yet approved on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for treating mesothelioma.
“But you’ll try anything,” Mr Wallner said.
A deadly childhood game
James’ older brother, Bruce Wallner, has distinct memories of finding the asbestos fluff in the garage of their home in the Canberra suburb of Campbell, and the childhood game that followed, back in 1970.
“It was a magnetic thing for young kids,” Bruce Wallner said.
“I remember the way it hung on your clothing after you’d been hit by a snowball or whatever.”
James Wallner said that, for decades, his family had put up with ‘dust’ raining from the ceiling of their home but thought little of it.
His mother even sealed up a kitchen ceiling vent with aluminium foil, to stop the material contaminating their food.
“I’d had 18 years of living in that house, with air vents, with cracks in cornices, and that loose fill asbestos was able to float down,” James Wallner said.
“So there was 18 years of exposure really.”
Clean up botched
The man behind the Mr Fluffy company, Dirk Jansen, had no record of which — or even how many — Canberra homes he had pumped asbestos into over an 11-year period.
So, in 1988 the Commonwealth commissioned a survey of all 60,000 homes then in the ACT, finding Mr Fluffy asbestos insulation in the ceilings of more than 1,000.
It then financed a costly remediation program to remove the asbestos insulation — but refused to accept legal liability for the potentially lethal mess.
What no-one realised at the time was that the clean-up program was botched, with some homes poorly cleaned, and others missed altogether.
While the ACT Government embarked on a billion-dollar scheme in 2014 to buy back all the homes tainted by Mr Fluffy asbestos, until now it had not made any payments to anyone who had contracted mesothelioma linked back to the failed insulation program.
Government to consider Asbestos Disease Assistance Fund
In a statement to the ABC, ACT Chief Minister Barr indicated the matter was now resolved.
“This is a very difficult situation and our thoughts are with James Wallner and his family as he battles this illness,” Mr Barr said.
Mr Barr said he had directed the Asbestos Taskforce to “investigate the establishment” of a broader Asbestos Disease Assistance Fund to support future mesothelioma victims, and he was “deferring consideration” of Mr Wallner’s broader claims for compensation.
But crucially, the Chief Minister’s letter confirmed the ACT Government “does not hold liability for the events” that caused Mr Wallner’s mesothelioma.
While the Mr Fluffy company was operating before the ACT was granted self-government in 1989, the Commonwealth has also refused to accept any legal liability, despite years of warnings from experts and its own health officials.
The legal tug-of-war between the two governments has made it difficult for residents to pursue legal options for compensation.
“I think they should make amends, and come to the table and coordinate with the ACT government to help underwrite a proper scheme for the people who follow James.”