Italian Verdict Can Help Spur American Asbestos Reform

February 13, 2012  |  Mesothelioma

It’s been called one of the most important asbestos trials of all time.

Three judges sentenced two executives for the Swiss firm, Eternit, on Monday to 16 years in prison for their role in a massive asbestos contamination case in northern Italy. Jean-Louise de Cartier of Belgium and Stephan Schmidheiny of Switzerland failed to protect workers and residents near four manufacturing plants that produced asbestos products.

The company’s unconscionable disregard for the public’s health left more than 6,000 suffering from asbestos-related illness and more than 2,000 dead in northern Italy.

The case highlights the deadly consequences of working with asbestos. Dozens of nations have already banned the mineral. Amazingly, the United States lags behind. This Turin verdict should serve as a wake-up call around the globe, especially in America.

For several decades, Eternit had produced asbestos roof coverings and pipes at plants in Casale Monferrato and Cavagnolo in the Piedmont region, Rubiera in Emilia and Bagnoli in Campania. The company closed the plants in 1986, six years before Italy banned asbestos. In Casale Monferrato, workers paved roadways with asbestos concrete.

The plants plagued the cities for more than 40 years. Even years after they closed, residents complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing. Complications from breathing asbestos fibers normally become apparent years, sometimes decades, after exposure. The cases were geographically isolated and it became clear that the plants were to blame.

Prosecutors proved that the company didn’t provide safety measures for the workers. And the executives failed to capture the fibers before they were released into the air and carried throughout the region.

The three-judge panel ordered monetary compensation for about 6,300 victims or their relatives. News reports said the two executives were ordered to pay the equivalent of $32.5 million American dollars to Casale Monferrato and $26 million to the Piedmont region. One woman was awarded the equivalent of $315,000 American dollars after losing her husband, daughter and three other relatives to asbestos-related diseases.

By jailing the two Swiss executives, the Turin judges have said that killing thousands while ignoring the dangers of asbestos is a criminal act. Now it’s time to bring that decision home and prepare the American asbestos industry for its own pair of shackles.

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