I ended the introductive post “Who am I?” saying that one goal of my blog is to make you laughing. On the other hand the post that I’m writing deals with a sad story happened in Italy. I wrote two pieces of paper in 2010 for the newspaper of the no profit organization “Noi per voi” (“Us for You”) which operates inside the pediatric hospital of Florence.
The term asbestos is known as Eternit in Italy, but this is a brand of asbestos cement registered in 1901 by Ludwich Hatscchek. From a scientific point of view, asbestos is a general name that includes a lot of silicates, already renowned by Greeks and nowadays used in the construction industry.
It is first mentioned in Greek sources, thus its name “Asbestos”, meaning inextinguishable. Greeks and Romans not only noted that asbestos had thermal conductivity, was resistant to fire and acids but also noted that asbestos had harmful biological effects. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both observed the “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloths.
Asbestos related diseases (mesothelioma, carcinoma, pulmonary and larynx cancer, etc.) are one of the main causes of occupational health in the workplace today. The most dangerous action is inhaling fibers of this material, and the fact that there is a big gap of time between the start of exposing and the development of illness.
The discovery that asbestos is highly carcinogenic was made by Selikoff in 1964, but asbestos companies continued using asbestos in manufacturing and construction even after that news.
Now I’ll tell you the dismal story of the workers of Eternit (ETEX) in Casale Monferrato, a little town near Alessandria, Piemonte.
It was the 1906 when the factory of “the miraculous material” opened. The Schmidheiny family possessed a lot of asbestos materials factories all over the world. The last successor of the family was Stephan Schmidheiny, who took the whole group in his hands in 1975, when he was 28 years old. Today is one of the richest men on earth, he worked with Bill Clinton, and he was an ONU assistant for sustainable development.
At the same time the silent decimation of the workers and their families started, having inhaled the asbestos powder in the streets, houses and backyards.
After an initial investigation begun in 1999 as a consequence of the complaint of several Italians immigrated in Switzerland, claiming to be ill because of the Eternit, in 2004 the procurator of Turin, Raffaele Guarinello, and the magistrate Sara Panelli and Francesco Colace presented 200 sheets of documents and depositions of ex co-workers proving the misconduct of Schimdeiny and his colleague the Belgian Baron Jean-Luis de Cartier Marchienne who was a director and minority shareholder of Eternit Italy.
The demand was 20 years in jail for both of them, for “causing a continuing disaster in health and environment and for willfully neglecting safety regulations in the workplace”. The billionaire and the baron are held responsible for the death of approximately 3,000 people in Italy, including employees, their family members and persons in the vicinity of four locations of Eternit Italy, Cavagnolo (Turin), Casale Monferrato (Alessandria), Rubiera (Reggio Emilia), e Bagnoli (Naples).
In 2009 the trial started and was followed out from the beginning. It was of a massive scale: over two thousand asbestos victims and representatives of more than sixty asbestos victims association.
It is a story of courage and determination that was brought on by common people and by a straight public prosecutor. Guarinello has to be admired for being the first public prosecutor in Europe to undertake an important prosecution in asbestos field.
A lot of people were inside and outside the tribunal at every session, holding banners with writings as “asbestos away” and “stop the massacre”. “You have to think that Eternit gave as gift bags of asbestos powder to the employees”, tell Bruno Pesce, ex union organizer who in 1995 coordinated the “committee for the asbestos dispute”. It is documented not only in Italy that Eternit factory encouraged locals to collect asbestos waste material for private purposes, knowing his health dangers but neglecting to inform people about it.
Maria Ottone is 80 years old, her brother, and lives in Casale Monferrato since she born. Her sister-in-law and her father died. “My brother passed away in 50 days: mesothelioma. His wife died shortly after him: she used to wash his uniforms. I hope that the culpable will be condemned and that they have to pay the cleaning of the soil.” She said the day after the first session of the trial in 2011.
The 13th of February 2012 the tribunal of Turin returned a verdict: Schimedheiny and Marchienne were both sentenced to 16 years prison. They will have to pay millions of euros in damages to the claimants who joined the trial as civil parties. The verdicts are not effective until final, meaning the defendants have the right to go to a Court before they must undergo their verdicts.
The local committees and the victims’ relatives were satisfied by the sentence, although it opened new arguments on asbestos matter in Italy. The verdict is valid for the violations committed in Casale and Cavagnolo from the 13th August on. Previous crimes expired as those notified in Bagnoli and Rubiera. The day after the “victory” of Turin, the first critical reactions appeared. “If there is punishment it can’t be only in the name of some victims, it has to be in the name of everybody. We are waiting for answers from our solicitors”, it can be read on a forum dedicated to the trial Eternit.
Even though it is a sentence that opens the path for other similar civil trial against Eternit, public prosecutors in other countries may study the Turin trial as a precedent for bringing their own criminal trials against directors of national Eternit subsidiaries. Anyway it needs to be remembered that some victims have been forgotten. Is this justice?
I would like to thank for his help Gordon Averal, the author of the useful and complete website http://www.asbestosfocus.co.uk.