Eternit’s Global Asbestos Crimes 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen

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A basic tenet of democracies is the principle of accountability; citizens have the right to hold to account those individuals, whether elected or appointed, whose decisions affect them. And yet, in an era when the reach of super-corporations transcends national borders and sovereign governments stand impotent in the face of formidable adversaries, redress for the impact of ruthless commercial decisions remains, by and large, a pipe dream rather than a reality. The publication in May 2019 of academic papers regarding the toxic legacies in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe bequeathed by companies belonging to the Eternit Asbestos Group – “who, together… [were] probably the largest manufacturers of asbestos cement in the world”1 – provided ample evidence of this.2

Asbestos-cement manufacturing operations by Eternit Colombiana S.A., a subsidiary of the Swiss Eternit Group, began in Sibaté, Colombia in 1942; nearly 80 years later, elevated levels of malignant pleural mesothelioma, the signature cancer associated with asbestos exposure, have been recorded and many of the injured were diagnosed at “unusually” young ages. Widespread environmental contamination – including toxic landfilled zones on top of which a school and sports facilities had been constructed – was also documented according to a paper published last month (May 2019) in which the authors noted that:

“The situation they [the people in Sibaté] are unfairly facing could happen to any community living nearby an asbestos cement facility. This situation could have been of lesser magnitude if Colombia had banned asbestos when other countries began this process

more than 30 years ago. We emphasize once again that the best way to prevent asbestos exposure and ARD [asbestos-related diseases] is to stop the use of this material. Although an asbestos ban in Colombia will not solve the adverse health and environmental impacts derived from the legacy of asbestos use, it would halt the use of asbestos and the introduction of new ACM [asbestos-containing material], a preventive measure urgently needed and recommended.”

From what can be ascertained, none of those affected received compensation for their injuries from the company or the government.3

The first company to manufacture asbestos-cement building products in the Middle East and North Africa was also owned by the Swiss Eternit Group and was set up in the 1950s in Chekka, North Lebanon.4 A study undertaken to assess the friability and risks posed by the weathering of asbestos-cement roofing in Chekka, an urban-industrial coastal city of 15,000 residents, has just been published with the authors reporting that: most rooftops were “in a bad state;” serpentine and amphibole fibers (though not including crocidolite) had been found in rooftop samples; the hazard posed by the toxic roofing was exacerbated by deterioration after decades of weathering.


Site of former Eternit factory in Chekka, Lebanon; asbestos-cement pipes in the picture were destined for export to Iraq.

Comments by a former Chekka resident confirmed high levels of environmental contamination in the town with asbestos debris often dumped in the Al-Asfour river nearby the Eternit plant:

“Much of the debris reached the sea where waves carried it back to the shoreline, to become re-suspended in the air at low tides. Tons of larger [pieces of] asbestos-cement debris were disposed of unprofessionally in an unsuitable landfill in Hamat (a city adjacent to Chekka). The landfill is standing on a cliff above one of the most beautiful coastal tourist areas in the country.”

Although official data on the incidence of mesothelioma was non-existent, he was aware that many people in his hometown who had worked with asbestos had died of mesothelioma; they received no compensation from their employer or the government.

Attempts to hold executives of the Belgian and Swiss Eternit Asbestos Groups personally accountable for thousands of asbestos-related deaths in Italy have come and gone throughout the 21st century, with a 16-year prison sentence issued by the Turin Court in 2012 to Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny being overturned by the Supreme Court (Court of Cassation) in 2014 on a technicality.5 A 2019 paper entitled: How to Judge Safety Crime: Lessons from the Eternit Asbestos Maxi-Trials by Pascal Marichalar examined loopholes exploited by defence lawyers to prevent criminal prosecutions succeeding, including: the practice of collective corporate decision-making; the difficulty in establishing links between industrial hazard and responsibility or intention; the need to prove causation for each victim on an individual rather than a statistical basis. Concluding the paper the author wrote:

“The Eternit maxi-trials showed that despite organizational complexity, individual corporate responsibility could be determined through careful historical research… Finally, the Eternit maxi-trials paved the way for a legal solution to the problem of causal uncertainty concerning individual victims, in cases where the causal link to exposure can only be determined on a population, statistical level… All concerned protagonists must dismiss, once and for all, the dream of establishing the causal link between exposure and disease on an individual level, and devise new tools to criminalize exposure and damages, based solely on statistically established facts.”6

Generations of workers in Lebanon, Colombia and Italy regarded the Eternit companies as beneficent employers and were proud to serve their employers. Little could they have known how their trust was being betrayed and their lives and those of their family members were being put at risk by occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos. Once they were no longer of any use, the companies turned their backs on their employees and walked away.

This is the current situation in the city of Minaçu, in the Brazilian state of Goiás where Eternit’s asbestos mining subsidiary SAMA has just fired all of its 400 workers.7

Will Eternit executives be hauled into a Brazilian court and forced to answer for the crimes they committed in their ruthless pursuit of profits? Will the company decontaminate the mining town and support the community to diversify in the post-asbestos era? Judging by what we have seen in Colombia and the Lebanon, it seems unlikely. That being said, however, Brazil was the first and only asbestos mining country in the world to achieve an asbestos ban via a Supreme Court verdict (2017) which declared the commercial exploitation of asbestos unconstitutional. In light of that, there are grounds to be optimistic that Brazilians may succeed where so many others have failed.

June 6, 2019


1 Eternit Building Products Limited. Page 72.
HSE. Selected written evidence submitted to the Advisory Committee on Asbestos 1976-77. 1977.
As Eternit was one of the world’s biggest asbestos conglomerates, it is likely that a significant proportion of the 300,000+ people dying every year from asbestos-related diseases were exposed to asbestos used or liberated by Eternit’s operations.
Takala J. et al. Comparative Analysis of the Burden of Injury and Illness at Work in Selected Countries and Regions. June 2017. Central European Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Comparative analysis.pdf

2 Ramos-Bonill, JP, Cely-Garcia, MF. An asbestos contaminated town in the vicinity of an asbestos-cement facility: The case study of Sibaté, Colombia. May 6, 2019.
Kfbury, A, Mitri, G. et al. Risk assessment of asbestos-cement roof sheets in Chekka, North Lebanon. May 23, 2019.
Marichalar, P. How to Judge Safety Crime: Lessons From the Eternit Asbestos Maxi-Trials. May 24, 2019.

3 Email received by Laurie Kazan-Allen on June 2, 2019.

4 In the early 1980s Swiss shareholders off-loaded their shares to an internal buyout; the company went bankrupt in 2002.
Eternit pulls back from the brink of disaster. January 24, 2000.

5 Eternit asbestos billionaire sentenced to prison by Turin court. May 23, 2019.

6 Marichalar, P. How to Judge Safety Crime: Lessons from the Eternit Asbestos Maxi-Trials. May 24, 2019.

7 Eternit demite 400 funcionários e hiberna mineradora de Amianto [Eternit dismisses 400 employees and hibernates asbestos mine]. May 31, 2019.



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