Weeklog Kartika Liotard: asbestos is a problem everywhere

5 February 2010

Weeklog Kartika Liotard: asbestos is a problem everywhere

"According to the national Health Council asbestos is much more dangerous than has been previously believed. The Ministry of Social Affairs considers that annually seven hundred people die from mesothelomia, which is demonstrably caused by asbestos. The Health Council believes it probable that a further nine hundred die from lung cancer." I read this in the Dutch national newspaper Trouw on 16th January, while an Italian cancer specialist last week told the Belgian paper De Morgen that "We expect the epidemic to peak in 2020. Hundreds of people in whom we now see no symptoms will by then have developed a tumour."


Kartika LiotardI live in an area of the Netherlands known as the Achterhoek. This is near Goor, the site of the asbestos factory of the firm Eternit. My personal involvement with the victims of asbestos is extensive, and in the past I've invested considerable energy in this issue, which respects no international borders. During my first term in the European Parliament, in 2006, we held a major conference in Brussels dedicated to the problem. (Our booklet from the conference is available here) Also, for example, during the same year in Amsterdam there was a conference where I was invited to speak. Eternit is a multinational, asbestos problems are also multinational and so there's a need for the struggle against asbestos and Eternit to be organised multinationally, in north, south, east and west.


Asbestos is a mineral used extensively in building. It is handy to use, cheap, fire resistant, makes good insulating material, but also – it's extremely carcinogenic. It was present, for example, in the huge Berlaymont building, the European Commission office complex in Brussels. And guess what. Decontamination of that building took fully thirteen years. Only in 2004 was it declared once again safe for the thousands of eurocrats to return to work there.


What I have seen little coverage of in the Dutch media is the enormous asbestos case which came before the Italian courts on December 10th. Ever since the 1960s the deadly dangers associated with the inhalation of asbestos fibres have been well-known, yet the multinational Eternit still continued to bring their employees, as well as people living in the vicinity of their factories, in contact with this deadly dust. Just as in the Netherlands, in Italy hundreds if not thousands have died and are dying. Eternit's bosses knew all about this silent wave of death, but regarded it as an unavoidable consequence, the collateral damage of its striving for profit.

Stretching time

The Belgian Baron Jean Louis De Cartier de Marchienne and the Swiss billionaire industrialist Stephan Schmidheiny were Eternit Italy's bosses. Now they stand accused in Turin of committing a ‘disastro doloso’, a legal term which means that one is responsible, and with intent, for a disaster, an intermediate term between manslaughter and murder. If they succeed in drawing out the trial - and they have in fact already done so - then any possible prison sentence will no doubt have the two old men gasping for breath, but to a far lesser extent than the long drawn-out process of asphyxiation to which they have condemned 1,600 Italians. The charge against the pair is that they took no protective measures, despite their having had foreknowledge of the danger. The asbestos affected not only their 'own' workers, but also people living in the area who inhaled dust blown into their homes and streets, as well as people, including children, who lived in the households of Eternit workers and were poisoned by the microscopic fibres brought home on work clothes.


Weekly, someone in Italy who has worked in or lived near a fabbrica del cancro – a 'cancer factory', the name given to Eternit in the village of Casale Monferrato – is diagnosed with cancer. (Type 'casale monferrato eternit' into YouTube and shudder at the desolate legacy of these capitalist profiteers.)


The mega-trial in Turin – which involves complaints against Eternit from altogether almost three thousand workers - is being followed by busloads of victims and family members who have survived them. 25th January saw a second session, while the next will be on February 8th.

The Belgian press is following the Italian trial but the Dutch media are silent. It is perhaps time that the SP organised another asbestos conference. At every point of the compass the asbestos problem demands our attention. To paraphrase the SP's election slogan: attention from me, from you, from all of us.

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