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28 December 2012

Eternit in France

Asbestos demonstration Paris, October 2012
("Asbestos kills = 3,000 deaths a year)
Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial 
Editors: David Allen and Laurie Kazan-Allen

On 13 February 2012, the verdict of the “trial of the century” was delivered against Stephan Schmidneiny and Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, the principal directors of the Swiss asbestos-cement company, Eternit.  The book, “Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial” was published by associations for the defense of asbestos victims in 11 countries. It describes Eternit and its owners, the Schmidheiny family, the activism in Casale, Italy, which led to the trial, the implications of the trial, and what is happening in other countries where Eternit factories were located and judicial actions there. Following is an excerpt from the book on Eternit’s asbestos-cement factories in France. The book is available for free on Scribd.com and has been translated into other languages. (See also International Ban Asbestos Secretariat which describes what is happening regarding asbestos worldwide.)

As introduction, here is a brief portrait of the asbestos tragedy in France:  In 1976, asbestos was classified as carcinogenic in France, but its use was banned only in 1997.  Some 2,000 persons died in 1996 from asbestos-related illnesses.  The number could reach 5,000 by the year 2020.  Mortality continues to increase in younger people:  between 1990-93, over 138,000 workers were exposed to asbestos in the building, naval construction, metallurgy and other industries.  (Ref: "La Société Cancérigène" by Geneviève Barbier and Armand Farrachi, 2004.)

Eternit in France (Extract from “Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial”)
by Marc Hindry

Eternit produced and sold asbestos-cement products in France for 75 years, from 1922 to 1997, the year of the French ban. For much of this time, asbestos-cement production and marketing in France were controlled by a cartel in which Eternit acted in conjunction with the French multinational Saint-Gobain, through its subsidiary Everit. The first Eternit plants were built at Thiant and Prouvy, followed by factories at Vitry-en-Charollai, Vernouillet, Caronte, Saint-Grégoire and Terssac… The apogee of the asbestos-cement empire occurred in the seventies, when Eternit was employing more than 5,000 people and producing more than 600,000 tons of asbestos-cement products per annum…

Until 1965, Eternit also operated the Canari asbestos mine on the coast of Corsica, where around 300,000 tons of asbestos were extracted. Eternit has left on this site a true ecological disaster; part of the bay has been filled with asbestos waste.

The French Eternit branch also developed asbestos-cement production in what were then French colonies. Factories were established in Senegal, Algeria and Indochina (Viet Nam). Eternit also participated in enterprises in Morocco and Tunisia…

During the 1980’s, the hazards and effects of asbestos were becoming increasingly difficult to hide so that Cabinet Valtat created officially in 1984 a formidable lobbying tool they christened “Comité Permanent Amiante” (Permanent Asbestos Committee (CPA)). From 1984 until 1996, the CPA essentially determined all government decisions on asbestos. It succeeded in gathering together asbestos manufacturers, ministry representatives, medical doctors and trade union representatives in a structure financed by the asbestos industry in order to promote “controlled use of asbestos.”

Eternit has enormously contributed to misinformation about the hazards of asbestos. The efforts to promote the myth of controlled use were unfortunately not matched by initiatives to improve workers’ safety and environmental care… The CPA brochures praise the marvelous efforts of members of the asbestos industry in France to improve safety in their plants… In 1985, the French Ministry of Environment awarded a clean technology prize to Eternit!

Reality sometimes strikes back: in 1995, the national TV channel France 2 managed to film an ordinary worker’s day in the Thiant plant and viewers discovered that bags of raw asbestos were opened with a knife, then manually emptied by a worker into a mixing machine: the worker wore no respiratory protection, the only means of dust removal being an aspirator device installed above the mouth of the mixer. A physician working in the nearest hospital… estimated his service was witnessing around 30 new mesothelioma cases every year.

Eternit and French Justice

Despite a number of challenges, to date Eternit has remained essentially untouched by justice in France. On 18 December 1997, the Court of Appeal of Mâcon ruled Eternit guilty of “faute inexcusable” (“inexcusable fault”) concerning the disease of several workers from the Paray-Le-Monial factory. Since then, Courts of Appeal have sanctioned Eternit for more than a thousand occupational disease incidences, including hundreds of deaths. Each of the Eternit plants has been condemned. Due to a flaw in the law, Eternit took the blame but hardly paid any compensation; most of the damages were settled by the health insurance system. Nevertheless, the Fund for Indemnification of Asbestos Victims (FIAV) has started a number of recursory actions concerning domestic and environmental asbestos victims of the Eternit plants.

In 1996, ANDEVA (National Defense Association for Victims of Asbestos) filed, in a civil suit, a “plainte contre X” (“complaint against unknown persons”), for involuntary injuries and homicides, abstention délictueuse (willful failure to act [to protect persons in imminent danger]) and poisoning; this suit was aimed at all persons responsible for the asbestos health catastrophe: the asbestos product manufacturers, the public health and labour authorities, the medical doctors that had collaborated in the process.

Although some 15 years have elapsed since the ANDEVA suit, no individual has been held responsible for the crimes listed in the complaint. However, in November 2009, M. Joseph Cuvelier, son of the founder of Eternit France, director of the Eternit asbestos-cement group from 1971 to 1994, came under investigation by a juge d’instruction (examining judge) for “involuntary injuries and homicides.” He is mainly accused of having failed to implement safety and protection measures for workers exposed to asbestos dust in Eternit factories. These enquiries are still ongoing.

The lives destroyed by Eternit

Figures cannot describe the sum of dramas, personal tragedies, rage, despair, resignation and humiliation that resulted from Eternit’s carelessness, mendacity and greed. One testimony below gives some idea of the harm the company has inflicted.

Caronte: Michel Salard worked for 22 years in the Caronte Eternit plant, near Marseille. As a result, he now has pleural plaques. His wife, Zoé, used to wash his working clothes, covered with asbestos dust; she shook the dust off before washing them. Today she suffers from mesothelioma which was diagnosed in 2008. He tells their story:

… “Over the years workers’ union delegates and the hygiene safety committee requested that our working clothes be washed by our employer. They constantly refused, arguing that ‘Eternit is not a laundry…’

“So it was my wife who washed my clothes covered with the dust brought from the plant. She used to shake them before washing them. She breathed asbestos fibers day after day, month after month, year after year, for 19 years. Today she is very seriously ill. She is not the only one, I know of three wives of Eternit workers who fell ill.”

Zoé Salard died on 1 November 2011, a month before the civil court of Aix-en-Provence declared Eternit guilty of exposing her to asbestos. The recursory action against Eternit is the first one for environmental or domestic exposure in France.

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