Global Asbestos Hegemony; Global Asbestos Crimes 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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In just over three months on May 31, 2016 the Italian constitutional court will hand down a verdict in a criminal case of immense importance not only in Italy but also in every jurisdiction where asbestos entrepreneurs profit from the commercial exploitation of asbestos.

At issue is whether Swiss asbestos billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny can be held to account for the deaths of 240 Italians who received toxic exposures to his company’s asbestos during the 20th century. Central to the defense, is the concept of double jeopardy whereby a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. Schmidheiny has, indeed, already been tried three times for Italian asbestos crimes; he was convicted by the Turin Court (2012) and the Appeal Court (2013) of causing a permanent environmental disaster as a result of which 3,000+ Italians died. These verdicts were overturned by the Italian Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) in November 2014 due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.

In the wake of that reversal, Turin Public Prosecutors Raffaele Guariniello and Gianfranco Colace accused Schmidheiny of the manslaughter of hundreds of other Italians; there is no statute of limitation for this crime.

For decades, the Schmidheiny family’s Swiss Eternit Group was at the heart of the global asbestos industry. In the early 20th century, they were one of the dominant asbestos-cement conglomerates which divided global markets into spheres of influence (see: Eternit and the SAIAC Cartel).


Under restrictive commercial agreements governing the sale of asbestos cement products during the 1930s and 1940s, Continental Eternit Companies – including the Swiss and Belgian Asbestos Groups – were allocated 20% of the UK and Irish markets for asbestos cement products (excluding pressure pipes).1 Products imported to the UK included those produced at the Schmidheiny factory in Casale Monferrato, Italy. A document recently found in the archives of the Library of the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors is informative about Eternit’s direct marketing techniques. The 114 page-document entitled “Asbestos Cement Pressure Pipes and Low Pressure Pipes (1951)” includes a report by British civil engineers about production processes at Eternit’s asbestos-cement factory in Casale Monferrato; there is no mention of dangerous occupational conditions or of the hazards of asbestos exposures which were known in Britain at that time (see:Asbestos-related Diseases).2 Focusing on the good performance, durability and cost effectiveness of the range of Eternit products, a two-page section of the text highlighted high-profile projects where these products were used in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cuba, France, Greece, Libya, Persia, Siam, Sweden and Tanganyika.

Unfortunately for Mr. Schmidheiny, the legacy of historical asbestos operations is quantifiable not just in hard cash but in lives lost. Some senior figures in the asbestos industry should be held responsible for the tragedy they have caused. In Italy, the prosecutors believe that Mr. Schmidheiny is one of them. There is no doubt that even as this article is being written Stephen Schmidheiny’s lawyers are actively engaged in developing new strategies to secure another judicial victory. The victims and families of those who have died wait patiently for the Italian court’s decision. Their views on Mr. Schmidheiny’s culpability have not changed nor has their outrage at the way the billionaire has whitewashed his reputation and reinvented himself as a green entrepreneur and philanthropist.3 May 31, 2016 is an important day not only for them but for all of us who believe that lives matter more than profits and that no one should have to die to earn a living.

February 15, 2016


1 Monopolies Commission Report. Asbestos and Certain Asbestos Products: A Report on the Supply of Asbestos and Certain Asbestos Products. Appendix 2 - List of agreements and arrangements no longer operative to which Turner & Newall Limited or its subsidiaries have been parties. [Pages 128-129]. 1973.

2 Meni F. For an overview of the conditions at the Casale Monferrato factory, see: The Eternit Factory at Casale Monferrato. 2012.

3 Schick F. Asbestos case puts spotlight on honorary degree. February 11, 2016.
Also see: Laurea ad honorem al patron svizzero dell’Eternit. Ora l’università di Yale valuta la revoca. February 9, 2016.



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