Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

EMF Studies

28 December 2012

Eternit - Killer Fiber

The tragic story of asbestos, extending over decades, parallels the one unfolding for electromagnetic (EM) radiation emitted by wireless technologies.  It is fitting that the first trial in Europe linking use of mobile phones to an employee's brain tumor has taken place in Italy, where the "trial of the century" against Eternit and asbestos was held.  This is a subject very close to my heart.  My companion, Adon, died from mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure three years ago.

Eternit – La Fibre Tueuse (Killer Fiber) – by Giampiero Rossi – 2008, with update 2012 (in Italian and French) 

This excellent book tells the story of the courageous fight of the workers at Eternit’s asbestos-cement factory in Casale, Italy, which led to the “trial of the century”, condemning two of the Swiss multinational’s directors.

The book begins with the tragic story of Romana Blasotti Pavesi from Casale. In 1954, Romana’s husband, Mario, got a job at the Eternit factory in Casale. For decades, working at the factory meant security – a fixed monthly salary and retirement benefits, and prestige. Mario “retired” in 1977 after 35 cysts were discovered. Afterwards, he began to experience pain in his back which led to a diagnosis of mesothelioma, cancer of the pleura. He died in 1983 at the age of 61.

In 1989, Romana’s sister, Librera, was diagnosed with mesothelioma and died at age 59. Her husband and son worked for a pipe factory which used asbestos. Afterwards, Romana’s cousin, Anna, died of mesothelioma. She lived near Salonit, an Eternit factory located in the region of Gorizia. Then, Giorgio, Libera’s son, died. He had worked in a factory making tires, using asbestos. In 2004, six months after Giorgio’s death, Romana’s daughter, Maria Rosa, was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

After the death of Libera, Romana because President of the Association of Families, Victims of Asbestos in Casale. The deaths of close family members fed her anger, pain and indignation. The death of her daughter, Maria Rosa, was a turning point in her activism and that of the entire town when she read out her daughter’s letter of indignation before association members. Maria Rosa’s death evoked rage and enormous emotion throughout Casale. Many other families had been destroyed by working in the Eternit factories and wanted justice.

The book goes into the history of the Eternit factory, founded in 1903 in Niederurnen, canton Glarus, by a Swiss, Alois Steinmann, who decided to exploit on an industrial scale the patent for a mix of cement and asbestos called “eternit.” He opened a factory in Casale which had a long economic history tied to cement.

From the 1920’s, the Schmidheiny family began to play an important role in manufacturing asbestos-cement and products made from this substance. The asbestos came from mines in Africa, Brazil, Canada, Russia and was transported from Genoa by train and truck to the factory in Casale, carrying clouds of deadly white dust through the streets of the town. The sacks of asbestos were off-loaded by hand. Thick clouds of tiny fibers spread through the workplace despite it being equipped with filters. Even the nearby vineyards were whitened by aerial diffusion of the dust from the factory.

Workers began to die from “lung disease” before retirement, almost all those who worked on the machines which softened and rendered “cottony” the asbestos fibers to facilitate their being mixed with cement. No one told them that the work was dangerous or that the asbestos dust was deadly – also to the inhabitants of the town. When a worker mentioned to management that he had trouble breathing, he was told to smoke less. Officials denied the dusty premises.

Mario Pavesi became involved in activism, demanding healthier working conditions at the Casale factory. It took years, however, for the workers to formulate specific demands. Management harassed activists, sending them to dangerous parts of the factory where most died before age 60. Finally, in the 1970’s, employees realized that working at the Eternit factory could cost them their lives. Both blue and white collar workers died. Management became uneasy, but Eternit continued to do all it could to suppress union initiatives and weaken the adversary. By the end of the 1970’s, all the workers understood the importance of protection of their health in the factory.

The union informed the inhabitants of Casale of the dangers of asbestos. Newspapers began to report deaths – 130 in 1984 and 20 times the incidence of lung disease, but some 1,000 families earned a living from the factory and would not side with the opposition. Finally, the decision was taken to conduct an investigation of working security in the factory. Many inhabitants still refused to believe the dangers of the factory until the first victim in the village died – a schoolteacher who had never worked at the factory. Townspeople breathed in the dust and used items made of asbestos produced by the factory;  wives washed the dust-laden clothes of their husbands. The activist movement grew, banning everyone together – environmental groups, doctors, politicians, workers from other cities.

Mesothelioma, a disease that begins slowly but kills its victims in less than a year’s time after diagnosis, was not recognized as a professional illness at the time. One doctor became so incensed after seeing so many very sick persons that in 1987, she wrote to the newspapers. The link to asbestos exposure and mesothelioma was finally recognized. The Eternit factory was declared bankrupt. A decree by the mayor called for sanitizing the site. Asbestos was banned in all construction in Casale, a first in Europe. In 1992, asbestos was banned in Italy : all products containing the material, extraction, importation, production, commercialization, but there was no fund for supporting the victims of asbestos.

By the end of the 1990’s, the number of persons diagnosed with mesothelioma went from 20-25 per year to 40-45, 75% of whom had never worked at the factory. It is feared that the worst is yet to come due to mesothelioma’s long latency period. The numbers of cases will continue to increase to at least 2020.

In 2004, the “trial of the century” began to take shape when it was decided to bring the two persons responsible for the Eternit factories in Italy to justice: Stephan Schmidneiny and Louis de Cartier de Marchienne. The two defendants knew that asbestos was harmful to health, that it killed, but deliberately chose, “in the name of profit”, not to rapidly eliminate the substance from production. This slow conversion of the Eternit factories to remove asbestos occurred in their factories throughout the world. (Their factories employed 20,000 persons in 20 different locations.) Instead, the phasing out of asbestos use in production lasted some 20 years (1984 to 2004).

A 220,000-page file was put together: 2,969 deaths, most, from mesothelioma, were attributed to asbestos in the Eternit factories. The Italian justice also procured reports of the working lives of 100 Italian immigrants employed at the Eternit factories in Payerne and Niederurnen in Switzerland, a number of whom became ill from mesothelioma after retirement.

Persons from Switzerland, Belgium, France, and other countries attended the trial in the hopes that in future there would be similar judicial actions against Eternit. The two defendants were accused of creating an environmental catastrophe and voluntary omission of measures to prevent work-related accidents or illnesses. They were accused of furnishing and maintaining the use of asbestos materials in the town of Casale, causing uncontrolled and persistent exposure of the population to this toxic substance, without informing them of the danger of these materials. Both men were sentenced to 16 years in an Italian prison, but neither one served time. Cartier was over 90 years old. Stephan Schmidneiny had the means to be physically inaccessible. The day before the verdict, Schmidneiny offered 18 million euros to the mayor of Casale in exchange for abandoning current and future judicial action. The mayor refused.

The book gives a portrait of the Schmidneiny brothers, Stephan and Thomas. In 1975, at age 27, Stephan took over operation of the Eternit factories. In 1978, he announced the progressive abandon of asbestos in products, but in 1984, the substance was still present in 50% of Eternit’s products, and only totally eliminated by 1994. Stephan was a United Nations representative for sustainable development. He taught globalization at prestigious universities and was awarded several prizes for philanthropy. Since turning the page on asbestos, he began talking about the defense of nature and the environment. He did not consider for a moment being responsible for the asbestos ravages in his factories.

Thomas holds a nearly 25% stake in Holcim, the largest cement industry in the world, employing over 80,000 persons. He gave 3 million euros to the community of Casale which was used to cover the cost for justice, decontamination and medical research.

The other person brought to justice, Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, Belgian, comes from a family of aristocrats and diplomats. From the 1960’s, he controlled Eternit (only in 1998 was asbestos banned from Belgium).

In 2011, 58 new cases of mesothelioma were diagnosed in Casale. Turin has opened a new series of investigations, called “Eternit bis” regarding these most recent deaths.

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