Review: Maria Roselli, The Asbestos Lie: The Past and Present
of an Industrial Catastrophe1 

Reviewed by Geoffrey Tweedale



This book was originally published as a paperback in 2007 and titled Die Asbestlge. The German text, however, limited its accessibility to most readers, so this version in English is particularly welcome. Roselli is an Italian-born investigative journalist, who has spent most of her life in Zurich in Switzerland. This explains the book’s focus: it is mostly about the Swiss asbestos industry. That means it is also mostly about asbestos cement.

One might imagine that this would result in a rather narrowly-focused book, which would have little wider interest. After all, it is difficult to think of a less glamorous technology than mixing asbestos with cement. But this technology – pioneered in Austria in 1900 and marketed and licensed under the trade name “Eternit” – was at the heart of a global building boom almost as soon as it was devised. Asbestos cement offered a tough, lightweight construction material that was ideal for roofs, walls, flooring, and water pipes. Its usefulness and widespread usage ensured steady profits for the leading companies. Soon asbestos cement production became the biggest sector in the industry, with Switzerland as its European nerve-centre. In Switzerland, the asbestos-cement industry was dominated by the Schmidheiny family, whose Eternit company was located in Niederurnen in the Canton of Glarus. The firm absorbed 90 percent of asbestos imports into Switzerland. The Schmidheinys’ dominance was international. In the 1920s, as Eternit companies sprouted across Europe (some controlled by the Schmidheinys, others by independent families), European asbestos-cement producers decided to organise a cartel – International Asbestos Cement AG (SAIAC). Significantly, its headquarters was in Niederurnen. Eventually, Swiss influence extended as far as South Africa and Brazil, where the Schnidheinys acquired interests in asbestos mining.

What was once a utilitarian and profitable material, however, inevitably became a liability once the health hazards of asbestos surfaced. In the first two chapters of this book, Roselli gives an overview of the global asbestos disaster, the location of the main consuming countries, and a description of the mortal health effects: asbestosis, asbestos-related lung cancer, and mesothelioma. The dangers and the way in which industry, governments, and scientists suppressed the evidence are well known through countless published studies of asbestos in the USA, UK, South Africa, and Australia. However, Eternit’s (and the Schmidheinys’) part in this global story has always, to some extent been hidden, and remains a matter of dispute. From the evidence presented here, it is clear that Eternit in Switzerland (like Cape Asbestos in South Africa) proved adept at escaping liability. The last family owner, Stephan Schmidheiny, sold his asbestos interests and sidestepped litigation. He metamorphosed into a wealthy philanthropist and campaigner on global environmental issues. Most of the company records are presumed to have been lost and have never been produced in litigation. Swiss government secrecy and its tardiness in not introducing a ban until 1994 helped the industry, as did its limited compensation scheme (administered by the Swiss Accident Fund, SUVA).

As regards asbestos, Switzerland seems to have operated not so much as the traditional “company town,” but as a “company country,” with industrial interests paramount. The industry representatives and government officials interviewed for this book do little to dispel this notion. They include Anders Holte (CEO of Eternit Switzerland); Franz Steinegger (a president of SUVA); and Stephan Schmidheiny (though the latter’s views are presented through his publicist). Roselli shrewdly allows them to state their case in full. They deny accusations that in the factories safety measures were inadequate or that workers were not informed of the risks, and instead blame the slowness of medical discovery and the lack of knowledge about those risks. They also argue that decisions were made in the local factories, not transmitted from the centre. The Schmidheinys’ involvement with a subsidiary in Nazi Germany is downplayed, as is the use of slave labour to run that factory. SUVA defends its compensation policies from the charge that they are too restrictive and too late: according to Steinegger the criticisms are “unreasonable and in part even somewhat malicious.” However, these views are difficult to reconcile with the ample evidence of dirty factories and widespread industry resistance to dust control. Other records show that decisions about working conditions in Eternit’s subsidiaries were made in Switzerland and not by local managers; and that Eternit has a documented suspicion of trade unions. Also apparent is the pitifully low compensation paid by the government, though most victims are not eligible for anything because of a punitive statute of limitations.

The results can be seen in Casale Monferrato, where the operations of an Italian Eternit company (in which the Schmidheiny family had a substantial stake) have already resulted in 500 deaths from asbestos cancers. Because Switzerland does not bother to keep a register of sick individuals, estimates of the national toll vary. But by mid-2006, one calculation listed 1,635 people in Switzerland with asbestos-related diseases, of which 750 had mesothelioma. Some of these victims are given their say in this book, too, and their testimonies are distressing to read. One relative writes:

“I think it’s important to speak about the physical suffering, about the pain of asbestos victims. Today you always read articles on asbestos in the newspapers but mostly they report some trial, about legal things, about the role of SUVA, and about money ... But there’s never an article on the immense pain that causes so much agony for these people. That this tumour [mesothelioma] is particularly brutal is simply ignored. No one mentions that the victims are screaming with pain.”

Roselli charts the backlash, which after 2002 has seen victims and their families launch action and support groups – such as the Swiss German Asbestos Victims Association – and criminal proceedings against the companies. In 2009, a trial began in Turin in which Stephan Schmidheiny answered charges of causing an environmental disaster and failing to protect workers. In 2012, Schmidheiny (and another executive) were held responsible for the deaths in Italy of about 1,800 people and the illnesses of several thousand others. It was an encouraging verdict for victims seeking justice, but the sentence – 16 years in jail and damages in millions of euros – is currently under appeal. In Switzerland itself, the government’s statute of limitations for compensation is currently under discussion, but so far remains unchanged.

This is a well-written book, which is easy to read (helped by an excellent translation by Penny Milbouer), and has many helpful tables, illustrations and photographs. It fills an important gap in our knowledge of asbestos. Switzerland emerges as a country that was one on the heaviest users of asbestos (with per capita consumption in the 1970s on par with the USA) and one of the most irresponsible. Its track record on compensation and workers’ safety reflects little credit on the country or its business executives.

Although this text stands alone as a significant contribution to our knowledge of the European asbestos industry, the canvas is broadened by “Annexes” attached at the end. These include brief essays by Laurent Vogel, “A Global Industrial Success Story – and Health Disaster”; Barry Castleman, “Asbestos in the USA Today”; Laurie Kazan-Allen, “Britain’s Asbestos Legacy”; and Kathleen Ruff, “Asbestos in Canada Today.” A listing of the addresses of Asbestos Victims’ Associations is also provided.

June 24, 2014


1 Maria Roselli, The Asbestos Lie: The Past and Present of an Industrial Catastrophe. Brussels: European Trade Union Institute, 2014. 179 pages. Footnotes and bibliography. ISBN: 978-2-87452-313-7. Copies of this work can be obtained from The European Trade Union Institute (link: The Asbestos Lie).



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