Asbestos Profile: Italy 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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As an asbestos producer, innovator, consumer and exporter, Italy played a major role in the development of the asbestos industry. In the early 1800s, Italian entrepreneurs were quick to explore and exploit a variety of uses for asbestos fiber in the manufacture of a range of textile materials; throughout the 19th century, Italy was the world’s main supplier of asbestos, much of which was tremolite asbestos. As a result of the opening of the Balangero chrysotile asbestos mine after World War I, Italian asbestos output was comparable with that of Canada, the world’s biggest producer of chrysotile asbestos fiber. Asbestos production in Italy peaked at 165,000 tonnes in 1976 and ceased when the Italy banned asbestos (1991). During the 20th century, most of the asbestos used in Italy went into the manufacture of asbestos-cement products [Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 through 2003 (page 8)].

Untold numbers of Italians suffered ill health and premature deaths from the country’s mining, consumption, processing and use of asbestos products. [Asbestos Disease Registries]. Decades of lobbying by injured victims, concerned community members, trade unions and local politicians, resulted in the Italian government passing legislation prohibiting asbestos. The campaign to ban asbestos was actively supported by civil society groups in the town of Casale Monferrato, the site of an Eternit asbestos-cement factory – known in the town as “the factory of death.” Casale Monferrato’s fight for asbestos justice, detailed in a monograph produced in 2012 by the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat in collaboration with Italian and international organizations, became a universal symbol of defiance of industrial might, political patronage and scientific corruption [Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial] [A Town in Mourning, a Town Reborn] [Mobilization of Italian Asbestos Victims] [Manchester Action Mesothelioma Day 2014] [The Curse of Asbestos].

The legal system in Italy, unlike those in the UK and US, allows Public Prosecutors to initiate proceedings against employers for failures to protect workers from hazardous exposures. On April 6, 2009, a preliminary hearing signalled the beginning of the “Great Asbestos Trial” [Eternit on Trial]. After scores of hearings on February 13, 2012, Eternit defendants Stephan Schmidheiny and Jean-Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, were convicted by a criminal court in Turin of causing permanent environmental disaster and failing to comply with safety rules as a result of which thousands of Italians died from asbestos-related diseases; they were sentenced to 16 years in prison and financial penalties of €90 million were imposed by the Court “jointly and severally” on them and the companies named in the lawsuit.

On June 3, 2012, the Turin Appeal Court upheld the landmark ruling and increased the prison sentence handed out to Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny from 16 to 18 years; the criminal case against Baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne had been vacated due to his death [2013 Appeal Verdict in the Great Asbestos Trial].

In November 2014, the Italian Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) vacated the guilty verdict and 18-year prison sentence for Schmidheiny on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired. [Italian Asbestos Verdict Due on Friday!] [Global Asbestos Hegemony, Global Asbestos Crimes].

On July 21, 2016, a ruling by Italy’s Constitutional Court approved a second round of legal proceedings (Eternit Bis) against Schmidheiny and the case was returned to the Turin court where accusations over the asbestos deaths of hundreds of Italians were to be investigated [Italy’s Hope and Glory].

On May 23, 2019, a Turin Court sentenced Schmidheiny in absentia to four years for the involuntary manslaughter of two individuals from Cavagnolo, both of whom died from asbestos-related diseases. Other trials were proceeding against the same defendant on hundreds of charges of voluntary homicide in Naples and Vercelli [Italian Asbestos Deaths: New Conviction].

On January 24, 2020, the Court in Vercelli ordered that Schmidheiny face charges of voluntary murder for the asbestos-related deaths of almost 400 people from the town of Casale Monferrato. The trial was scheduled to begin on November 27, 2020. Legal actions against the same defendant are also being pursued in other Italian jurisdictions over asbestos-related deaths of Eternit employees and local residents. [Stephan Schmidheiny in the Dock: Again!].

The fight-back against Italy’s asbestos epidemic has been conducted over decades by asbestos victims’ groups, medical associations, trade unions, municipal authorities, spiritual and political leaders and concerned citizens. Through collaboration and imagination, they have devised effective and eye-catching campaigns to ensure that the victims of asbestos-related diseases are not forgotten [EterNOT not Eternit!] [International Workers Memorial Day 2013].

The plethora of news items and articles on this website about asbestos-related developments in Italy are an indication of widespread support for action to address the country’s toxic asbestos legacy and desire to live a life free from future exposures [IBAS archive on Italian news items] [IBAS archive on Italian articles].

April 2020



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