by Elizabeth Grossman
What’s being called the first-ever such criminal conviction, an Italian court has returned a guilty verdict against owners of Eternit, the Switzerland-based building materials company. Two weeks ago, W.R. Grace announced its bankruptcy case settlement for the residents of Libby, Montana where the company’s vermiculite plant exposed residents to deadly asbestos fibers for decades. While more than 40 countries, including Italy, have banned asbestos use, it remains legal in the US. An effort by the US Department of Justice hold W.R. Grace criminally liable for the Libby exposures failed, resulting in an acquittal in 2009. Except for their verdicts, the two cases have striking similarities.
Turin, Italy February 13, 2012: An Italian criminal court issues a guilty verdict, sentencing Stephan Schmideheiny, former owner of Eternit, and Baron Louis de Cartier, the company’s former director and minority shareholder of Eternit Italy, each to 16 years in jail for the deaths of more than 3,000 people sickened by asbestos exposure. The sentence also includes payment of millions of euros to the more than 6,000 claimants who joined the criminal trial as civil parties. Schmideheiny, 65, and de Cartier, 90, were found guilty of failing to take reasonable measure to protect the workers and communities around four Eternit factories that manufactured asbestos products in Italy. The charges say the Eternit plants had spread asbestos fibers over parts of northern Italy by allowing asbestos powder used to make roofing material and pipes to drift through the air.
The towns of Casale Monferatto and Cavagnolo where Eternit plants were located and where uncontained asbestos-products manufacture continued into the 1980s will receive damage awards as will the region of Piemonte. As described by the World Asbestos Report, from 1907 to 1985, Casale Monferatto was the site of Italy’s largest asbestos factory.Waste material from asbestos-cement production there was used widely in local paving and garden projects. (Mine tailings were used similarly in Libby.) The court in Turin also awarded damage payments to victims’ families and to a number of organizations, including several labor unions. Neither of the defendants appeared at the trial, which lasted for more than two years.
Eternit’s manufacturing operations have been closed in Italy since 1986 where asbestos has been banned since 1992. According to Eternit company history, the company stopped using asbestos in 1994. Eternit also produced asbestos products in Belgium and the Netherlands where asbestos-exposure cases against the company are ongoing and where factory employees and community residents have contracted asbestos-related lung diseases.
“The deaths of our beloved were not from natural causes but by the greed of some people. We hope the judgment will deter the people who say the same lies now in other countries that were said in Casale 30 years ago. We hope that compensation ordered by the court will demonstrate that the production of asbestos is no longer good business anywhere in the world,” Assunta Prato, an asbestos widow said in a press statement from Associazione Famigliari Vittime Amianto AFeVA, a group representing victims’ families.
“Our battle is a battle for civil justice, not a request for economic compensation,” said Romana Blasotti Pavesi, 82, President of the Association of Families and Victims of Casale Monferrato, whose husband and daughter and other family members died from asbestos, most from environmental non-occupational exposure.
“This verdict gives us all the right to dream, not only in Italy, but all over the world. The right to dream about the fact that justice can be done and must be done,” Turin public prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello told EuroNews.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 107,000 people die each year from asbestos-related lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis resulting from occupational exposure and that about 125 million are exposed to asbestos in the workplace. The WHO also estimates that one in every three deaths from occupational cancer is caused by asbestos and that several thousands deaths annually can be attributed to home asbestos exposure.
Missoula, Montana, May 2009: A federal jury in US District Court acquits W.R. Grace & Company and three former officials on charges of having knowingly exposed Libby, Montana residents to asbestos poisoning and that they conspired to hide the fact. For almost 30 years, W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine in Libby, where the entire community was exposed to the asbestos fibers, either through work in the mine, dust that came home with workers, and through mine tailings that were used in the town’s building projects. More than 1,300 residents of Libby (population nearly 3,000) have been sickened by asbestos exposure; an estimated 400 have died from related diseases. Libby is now a Superfund site.
The contamination was such that in 1999, the EPA sent emergency responders to Libby and has been working on asbestos removal and clean-up ever since. In 2008, the EPA negotiated a settlement of $250 million, the largest cash settlement in Superfund history, to recover clean-up costs from the W.R. Grace. In 2009, in the first such action in agency history, the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby to provide federal health care for affected residents. Then, in September 2011, a $43 million settlement of the civil suits against W.R. Grace was approved (with about one-third of that amount going to attorneys in the case.) Reporting on the settlement the Los Angeles Times wrote:
“But few in Libby are celebrating the settlement. This is a town where victims of lung cancer and mesothelioma can often be seen pushing oxygen carts through the aisles of the grocery store and where many families have members among the 400 who have died of asbestos-related disease.”
Meanwhile, an astonishing number of asbestos-containing products remain on the market in the US. In July 1989, the EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products but that was overturned in 1991 by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. As a result, while certain products and new uses of asbestos are banned under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) as enumerated by the EPA, current regulations still allow: “asbestos-cement corrugated sheet, asbestos-cement flat sheet, asbestos clothing, pipeline wrap, roofing felt, vinyl-asbestos floor tile, asbestos-cement shingle, millboard, asbestos-cement pipe, automatic transmission components, clutch facings, friction materials, disc brake pads, drum brake linings, brake blocks, gaskets, non-roofing coatings, and roof coatings.” It also allows “trowelled-on” surfacing with asbestos-containing materials as well as spray-on applications of materials that contain more than 1% asbestos if the asbestos fibers are encapsulated or mixed with a binder and the materials are not crumbly when dried. There are additional exceptions that allow use if asbestos particles are contained or vented in certain ways.
EPA does not track the manufacture, processing, or distribution in commerce of asbestos-containing products, and cautions that, “It would be prudent for a consumer or other buyer to inquire as to the presence of asbestos in particular products.” The current World Health Organization and International Labor Organization asbestos-disease elimination strategy says that “the most efficient way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop the use of all types of asbestos.”
February 1, 2012: The W.R. Grace corporation proposes – as part of the company’s bankruptcy settlement – to pay $19.5 million into a trust for people sickened by asbestos exposure from the company’s operations in Libby. This money would fund the Libby Medical Plan Trust, the voluntary program established by W.R. Grace in 2000 and another trust that would compensate property owners. The costs of asbestos-related claims pushed W.R. Grace to filed for bankruptcy in 2001. According to local news report. Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Diseases has a growing caseload of more than 2,800 patients with asbestos disease.
February 15, 2012, Turin, Italy: Convicted Eternit owners say they will appeal the verdict. In the US, while attempts thus far to pass a federal act to ban asbestos have failed, public health advocates have been calling for a global ban on asbestos. The American Public Health Association, Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and Canadian Voices of Asbestos Victims issued a Declaration among others have all called for an end to the use of asbestos and its export to developing countries, and for stringent measures to prevent exposure during asbestos clean-up and removal. Yet despite what we know about asbestos its use continues in North America. In the first seven months of 2011 the US imported 1,100 metric tons of asbestos, up from the 2010 total of 1,040, mostly imported from Canada, with most going to roofing products.
As Linda Reinstein, president of ADAO has said of asbestos, it is “still lethal and legal in the United States.”
Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.