Love, Italian Style

Piazza Venezia Rome, May 2010

Yesterday, Feb 13th, 2012, after a two-year trial, a panel of three judges in Turin, Italy ruled Jean-Louise de Cartier de Marchienne of Belgium and Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland guilty of involuntary manslaughter and has sentenced each of them to 16 years in prison along with millions in compensation.  The Swiss billionaire Schmidheiny, age 64, was a former owner of the Eternit conglomerate that owned four cement factories in Italy using asbestos in their manufacturing processes.  The Belgian baron de Cartier, age 90, was a major shareholder in the firm. They were convicted of causing over 3,000 asbestos related deaths in four Italian villages in the 1980s.

Schmidheiny’s defense team claims Eternit has modernized the Italian plants in the ‘70s and ‘80s to provide the highest safety standards in the industry at the time.  They are planning to appeal the ruling.  Yesterday’s decision paves the way for the second trial against the same defendants to hold them accountable for the more recent asbestos related deaths.

The Italian arm of Eternit went bankrupt in 1986. Not an uncommon practice. Many companies dealing with asbestos file for bankruptcy, generally well before asbestos related compensation claims need to be paid out.  Italy banned asbestos in 1992.

This ruling sends a very strong and important message to owners and shareholders of companies that fail to protect workers and community members from exposure to toxic substances used in their processes and products.  The Eternit trial could set a precedent for international environmental and occupational justice cases.  Companies such as Dow, now owner of the Union Carbide Gas Disaster legacy in Bhopal, India, should be shaking in their boots.

The terrible, and not fun, facts are that

-The World Health Organization estimates 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on the job each year and 100,000 die from asbestos related diseases.

-The United States has still not completely banned the use of asbestos and American manufacturers continue to rely on asbestos.

-Canada continues to mine asbestos, advocate the use of asbestos, and export it to developing nations.  The Canadian Asbestos Industry has consistently obstructed the attempts to list asbestos as a toxic substance in the Rotterdam Convention and any efforts to create an international ban on the mining and use of asbestos.

The story is not yet over.  The use of asbestos remains rampant in rapidly developing nations.  Stay tuned her for an upcoming interview with Laurie Kazan-Allen of the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.


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Jayshree Chander

Doctor Chander