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28 March 2013

Switzerland: Victims of Asbestos Speak Out - Part 1

Renate Howald, widow of Hans Moor, former employee at
ABB who died at age 58 from cancer of the pleura
(mesothelioma) due to asbestos exposure.
Switzerland, headquarters of Eternit, and the home country from which the tentacles of the asbestos-cement industry spread, does not recognize, or only with great difficulty, its victims. The country has invoked a statute of limitations of 10 years in labor law. In Switzerland, the victims of asbestos are living an ordeal of resentment, suffering and painful memories. Sometimes in total indifference. Here are their testimonies (in two separate posts). The Radio-TV Suisse Romande will be devoting a series of radio programs about the victims of asbestos ("Vacarme": 8-12 April 2013). In order to contact organizations assisting asbestos victims in Switzerland: : www.caova.ch et www.asbestopfer.ch.

On the eve of the 4th anniversary of the death of my companion, Adon, victim of mesothelioma, I thank all these people for their courage to speak about the terrible ravages of asbestos. (See: "Mesothelioma:  A Personal Testimony")

Testimonies : The Forgotten Swiss of Asbestos
by Xavier Filliez, L’Illustré, 22 February 2012 (translated from French)

Italy has just condemned the former owner of Eternit. In Switzerland, the road to recognition of asbestos-related illnesses and naming the guilty is full of pitfalls.

The former boss and owner of Eternit, the billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny,was condemned on 13 February [2012] to 16 years in prison by the Court in Turin for a “health disaster” which has cost the lives of thousands of workers. The sentence is still far from being enforced. Two means of recourse remain for appeal. And Switzerland does not practice extradition. The scandal of asbestos has nevertheless gained international attention which could awaken a cascade of trials everywhere “the miraculous fiber” has spread.

First paradox : the home country, headquarters of Eternit, the place from where asbestos cement has spread its tentacles, does not recognize, or only with great difficulty, its victims. The rare court proceedings against the asbestos industry have not led to results. The ten-year statute of limitations period is invoked in labor law. Is it reasonable, when asbestos diseases declare themselves 20, 30, sometimes 40 years after exposure? Another impediment on the long road towards recognition, is the inability to heal. With the exception of mesothelioma (cancer of the pleura), a characteristic of asbestos, it is difficult to prove the link between cause and effect – between inhalation of particles and a pathology, for example lung cancer, tumors of “multifactorial origin”. Who should pay? The manufacturer? SUVA, the national health insurance, in case of accident? This mess has reached its heights. The facts: 2,779 cases have been registered as “professional illnesses linked to asbestos” by SUVA to date, totaling 650 million francs in benefits. One deplores the 1,369 deaths. Litigation sometimes finishes up in court. Four proceedings are ongoing. In Switzerland, there are people crippled from asbestos, living their ordeal with resentment, suffering, and painful memories. Sometimes in total indifference. Here are their testimonies.

Renate Howald, widow of Hans Moor, former worker at ABB, dead at age 58 from cancer of the pleura due to asbestos.

"When the guilty pay, it is called justice." 

Hans died in 2005. But he is still everywhere in the pretty apartment in Untersiggenthal (AG), where his wife, Renate Howald-Moor, receives us. Machine mechanic at ABB/Alstom, he was a jack of all trades at home. The furniture in the livingroom is made by his own hands. One day, everything stopped after the harsh-sounding medical diagnosis: cancer of the pleura (mesothelioma), characteristic of exposure to asbestos. In the past, Hans ensured maintenance of the ABB turbines. That day, Renate, returning quickly home, found him in tears. “He knew what it meant. He had seen sick colleagues. They gave him two years. » At 56, Hans Moor did not accept the verdict and launched himself into a crusade against those responsible, his employers, who had, according to him, committed the sin of negligence. “We worked without protection. The worst was that we had not been informed of the dangers of this substance, while the risk had been known since at least 1964. Some people say that potential death from asbestos is uncertain. But what does one do to inform oneself?” ask his widow and lawyer, David Husmann, who is continuing Hans’s battle.

The strict timetable that he had to adhere recalls his slow descent towards Hell: the chemotherapy sessions, sleepless nights, weight loss, until his last hours at home, Renate at his bedside. “You should fight after my death for all those who have been exposed to asbestos. This will be my heritage,” he implored, short of breath. The oath from beyond the grave slowly bore fruit. In spite of compensation obtained from SUVA, which recognized the professional illness, Renate lodged a complaint against the insurance fund and ABB/Alstom for failing in their obligation to “take safety measures for workers”.

Denied by the Federal Tribunal which invoked the statute of limitations (counting ten years from exposure to asbestos), their complaint has just been accepted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “This statute of limitations makes no sense, since cancer due to asbestos declares itself at the earliest 15 years after exposure”. They are hoping to fix the start of the statute of limitations from the time of detection of the illness. Since the Turin verdict, Renate is not living better – “I miss Hans and that will never change” -, but she commends the fact that a “court has had the courage to condemn someone so wealthy and powerful.” Here she is like Winkelried [legendary Swiss hero], confronting the giant industrialists alone. “The guilty must be punished. This is what is called justice.”

Jean-Paul Romanens, former carpenter at Eternit in Payerne, who sees asbestos as the « sword of Damocles. »

“I am not dying from fright, but I am worried.”

Who, he or she, is living the worst through all these years in close proximity to asbestos? Jean-Paul Romanens worked for 22 years at the Eternit factory in Payerne as a carpenter. His wife, Ginette, washed his soiled work clothes. “I have eaten this dust”, this Fribourg woman in her 60’s is forced to admit. “The worst, was for those off-loading the railroad cars.” In the carpentry department, the asbestos paste, slightly moist, seemed less suspect, but “the sanding of the moulds” caused the particles to disperse.

During the first ten years, from 1962, « there were not any protective measures », « they even showed us films on asbestos mines, saying : « Look, it isn’t dangerous, it’s everywhere. » Then, the first precautionary measures were imposed. “We could not sweep or blow the dust, we had to vacuum it up.” Masks were placed at their disposal, “but could you work with a mask the whole day?” In 1972, Jean-Paul Romanens experienced health problems for the first time. Three pneumothorax in four years, a diagnosis delivered by a prominent professor who totally vindicated asbestos. Jean-Paul took notice of it but left the factory to go into business for himself.

Today he lives in permanent doubt. Asbestos is the sword of Damocles to him. As with all former workers at Eternit, he has a scan every two years, which revives his anxiety. Ginette has not yet taken in the latest medical visit: “He did not sleep… The radiologists called him because he had white spots on his lungs.” “This time, it was a false alarm, but the next time?” wonders the couple. “I am not dying from fright,” reassures Jean-Paul, but I am worried, that’s true.” Certain former colleagues, afflicted more seriously in their health, see being refused compensation. “The problem is lung cancer. Nearly all the workers smoked. Go prove that lung cancer is due to asbestos if you have smoked all your life.” There is a fatalism surrounding the illness. “What good does it serve to know the causes of the disease more quickly thanks to a scanner if one is in any case doomed when one has it, a doctor said one day without tact. Who is, in fact, directly responsible for this scandal? Can we name a guilty person? The Romanens are not freely slamming Stephan Schmidheiny. “Eternit offered super social conditions. Was he too young ? Did he really know the risks we were taking? If so, he merits his sentence.” If not? This will be bad luck. To be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To have “eaten” the fiber as one “runs the risk of a motorcycle, skiing or airplane accident,” Jean-Paul says. He is having his next scan at the end of the month.

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