Turin trial marks watershed in battle to ban asbestos

The conviction of two billionaire investors by a court in Italy marks a turning point in the battle to eradicate asbestos, one of the most efficient – and lethal – components used in the construction industry throughout the world.


A court in Turin has sentenced the main shareholders of building firm Eternit to 16 years in jail in what has been hailed as the biggest-ever trial on asbestos-related deaths – and the first involving criminal charges brought against the company’s owners.

Swiss tycoon Stephan Schidheiny, 64, and Belgian baron Jean-Louis de Cartier, 89, were accused of causing a “permanent health and environmental catastrophe” at their company’s Italian plants, the effects of which are still being felt 28 years after they shut down.

In the northern town of Casale Monferrato, home to the largest of Eternit’s four plants, 1,800 people have died of asbestos-related diseases, including some 800 who never even worked for the company.

Every week in the small town of 35,000, doctors discover a new case of pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

“Throughout my career I have never witnessed such an appalling tragedy,” said prosecutor Rafaelle Guariniello in his closing speech.

For the more than 6,000 people who had joined the class-action suit, many of whom greeted the verdict with tears of joy, Monday’s ruling marked the end of a gruelling battle for recognition.

“This is the first time a guilty verdict falls on Eternit’s owners, those who made a profit from their deadly factories and who had previously pinned the blame on the negligence of individual factory managers,” said Silvana Mossano, a journalist at local daily La Stampa who has written about the plight of Casale’s inhabitants for close to three decades.

Over the past two years, thousands of people from Italy and abroad have flocked to the Turin courthouse to attend the trial’s 66 hearings, many crammed into separate rooms to follow the proceedings on closed-circuit television.

On Monday some 160 people made the trip from France, most of them members of Andeva, an association of French victims of asbestos. “Hopefully the example set by magistrates in Turin will inspire their counterparts around the world,” said the association’s spokesman, Alain Bobbio.

A deadly mineral

Eternit, a secretive international firm named after a construction material mixing asbestos and cement, opened its Casale plant in 1907. At the time, asbestos was known as the “magical mineral” because of its remarkable resistance.

Soon, Eternit’s fibre slates were being used across Italy to build homes, schools, hospitals and cinemas.

Waste material at the Casale plant was crushed in the open, ensuring the poisonous dust was blown all over town. And when it wasn’t disposed of, it was simply gifted to workers’ families so they could use it at home.

The children of Casale even used to play on “white beaches” made of powder blown over from the Eternit plant.

“We knew people got sick working for Eternit, but we didn’t expect them to die of it,” said Nicola Pondrano, who joined the company in 1974 at the age of 24.

Pondrano said he first realised what lay in store when funeral notices began covering the factory’s outside wall.

“Employees who were passing away one after another had barely reached their fifties,” said the former engineer, who soon joined a trade union to call for improved safety at the plant.

His efforts drew a mixed response. “Some managers made a genuine effort to improve our working conditions, but others told me to keep quiet and clean the toilets instead,” he recalled.

According to Bruno Pesce, who heads Casale’s association of families of the victims, Eternit’s owners knew all the while what was going on.

“The top brass made repeated attempts to conceal the evidence, despite being fully aware of the health hazard,” he said. “They could have saved many lives, but they decided it was cheaper for them not to look for alternative materials.”

A powerful industry

Governments have been just as slow to act on research into the effects of asbestos, some of which dates back to the start of the 20th century.

Nazi Germany – of all regimes – was the first to offer workers compensation in 1943 based on scientific evidence of a link between lung cancer and exposure to asbestos.

Italy decided to ban asbestos in 1992, but it wasn’t until 2005 that a Europe-wide ban on it came into force.

Today the deadly fibre is illegal in 55 countries, including most modern industrialised nations with the notable exception of Canada, which was until recently the world’s largest producer of asbestos.

While Canadian asbestos miners were banned from selling their product on the domestic market, they remained free to export it to fast-growing countries such as India and Brazil.

La Stampa’s Mossano says companies working with asbestos have been instrumental in delaying or watering down legislation.

“The industry is still financing research to convince Canadian authorities to reopen asbestos mines; and when the results are unfavourable, they are simply modified or abandoned,” said Mossano.

The jury in Turin heard that for decades the Schidheiny and Cartier families had played a key role in the asbestos cartels that lobbied in favour of the industry.

Investigators searching the offices of a Milanese communications agency hired by Eternit also came across detailed instructions about how to deal with journalists, trade unions and lawyers, and ensure the company’s top brass were cleared of all blame.

A message for the world

Campaigners around the world are hoping the Eternit trial in Italy will mark a turning point in the fortunes of the asbestos industry.

“No one expects Schidheiny and Cartier to actually go to jail – the inevitable appeals could take years and both defendants may already be too old,” said Mossano. “What is really at stake here is raising awareness of the dangers of asbestos and of the heavy sentences industry barons will incur if their companies continue using it.”

Her view was echoed by many of the plaintiffs at the trial. “We need the industry to understand that, in the long run, they cannot make a profit from asbestos,” said Pondrano.

Judging by the endless list of reparations included in Monday’s sentence, the asbestos industry may have cause for alarm.

The Turin court ordered Eternit’s owners to pay a total of €95 million in compensation to the families of the victims, as well as significant sums to the town of Casale, the Piedmont region, trade unions, and a host of other parties.

“Hopefully this will make companies around the world think twice before seeking to cut costs at the expense of workers’ safety,” said Bruno Pesce, ruing the lack of legal frameworks to protect workers from unscrupulous international corporations.

After Monday’s verdict, Andeva’s Alain Bobbio said he wished France had at least Italy’s legal tools, claiming the French legal system was ill-equipped to handle cases relating to the environment and public health.

“We need to adapt our penal code so that they can tackle this sort of catastrophe,” he said, pointing to past attempts to convict former Eternit executives in France that were either dropped or quashed on appeal. “At stake here is the very notion of a safe environment for workers and the rest of society.”

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