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Lessons for India from Swiss asbestos tycoon found guilty for causing death of 392 people

By Dr Gopal Krishna* 

The fate of Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire who has been sentenced to 12 years in jail on aggravated manslaughter charges connected to the deaths of hundreds of people due to asbestos exposure by an Italian court on 7 June, 2023 has lessons for India. Similar fate awaits the manufacturers of asbestos based products in India who are endangering the lives of all present and future generations of Indians. 
The verdict is relevant for India because Eternit company with which he was associated had plants in India as well. There is no public or private building in India which is asbestos free including the new parliament building.
This verdict has a relationship with the verdict of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India dated 27 January 1995 in Consumer Education & Research Centre (CERC) v Union of India. It directed all asbestos factories to keep the health records of their workers for 40 years and/or 15 years after their retirement. It is germane to India because human biology is same everywhere if the asbestos is deemed hazardous and unusable in the developed countries; it must be deemed so in India too.
The conviction of Stephan Schmidheiny for asbestos related deaths paves the way for the 300 year old Yale University to rescind the honorary degree given to him. It rescinded it from comedian Bill Cosby for sexual assault.
The extent of greenwashing, blue washing and ethical positioning by Stephan Schmidheiny can be fathomed from the fact that his foundations financed entirely by the Schmidheiny family have awarded Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Professor Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, and Jorma Ollila, Chairman & CEO, Nokia, The Economist, The International Committee of the Red Cross and N. R. Narayana Murthy, the Founder-Chairman of Infosys Technologies Limited, a global software consulting company headquartered in Bangalore, India.
After Schmidheiny’s conviction, there is a moral obligation on the part of the individuals and institutions to return the tainted awards and donations from him and to recall the awards and degrees given to him.
The Italian Court’s verdict is relevant to India because it has been estimated that one person dies from mesothelioma for every 170 tons of asbestos consumed. India is the biggest consumer of asbestos. It imported 3,61,164 tonnes of asbestos in 2019-20. The imports of asbestos were mainly from Russia (85%), Brazil , Kazakhstan, Hungary (3% each), and Poland and South Africa (2% each). Asbestos diseases have a very long incubation period.
Therefore, if you are exposed today to asbestos fibre, you are likely to get the disease in the next 10-50 years. Asbestos is like a time bomb to the lungs and Indians will suffer the most. If it is banned today that does not mean people will not suffer. Because of past usage people will continue to suffer from these diseases.
Responding to the verdict of the Italian Court, Dr Barry Castleman says:
“The court will issue a written explanation of its verdict, called the Motivation, in about 3 months. This makes 3 manslaughter convictions in trials of Schmidheiny in Italy, the others were in Turin in 2019 (one death, 4 years' sentence reduced to 1 1/2 on appeal) and Naples in 2022 (one death, 3 1/2 year jail sentence). In this verdict, a small number of the 392 fatal cases were excluded based on inadequate proof regarding dates of exposure or incomplete histological test data.
"In over 300, the convictions were not subject to penalty only because of the statute of limitations. In about 30 remaining, the court held that the convictions for these deaths were not blocked by the statute of limitations. This verdict, like the other trial convictions, will now be appealed by the asbestos billionaire, who has never appeared in an Italian court but has been represented by able counsel at a cost of over $100 million.”

Dr Castleman is the author of "Asbestos: Medical and Legal Aspects", the most authoritative book on the asbestos industry.
“Eternit does have asbestos manufactories in India and is responsible for many asbestos related deaths. I hope the Indian legal system is as sophisticated as the Italian legal system to allow justice for victims of asbestos disease, similar to those in Casale Monferrato, Italy,” says Harminder Bains, joint head of Leigh Day asbestos team, UK. Her father died of mesothelioma, an asbestos related disease.
Schmidheiny is a 73 years old industrialist and former main shareholder in the cement production company Eternit Italia, was sentenced by a court in Novara after being found guilty of causing the death of 392 people in Casale Monferrato, the Piedmont town that until 1986 was home to the largest of Eternit Italia’s six factories.
Schmidheiny used to manage the plant in Casale Monferrato from 1976 until its closure. Eternit SEG, led by Schmidheiny, was a leading shareholder in Eternit Italia until its bankruptcy in 1986. The judges have ordered him to pay €50m (£43m) in provisional damages to Casale Monferrato’s local authority as well as €30m to the Italian state and €500m to a local association for relatives of victims of asbestos related diseases.
Schmidheiny was tried because under Italian law, the owner of a firm is deemed responsible in the event of workplace accidents or deaths. The factory’s asbestos waste used to be crushed outside causing asbestos dust to be blown across the town. The factory was responsible for primary and secondary exposure to the carcinogenic asbestos mineral fibers.
A rise in the number of victims of asbestos related diseases like pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, was found alarming in the late 1970s despite the fact that symptoms of these diseases have a long incubation period before they become manifest.
It is noteworthy that the UN agencies have taken note of a study that found the Kymore asbestos factory in Katni, Madhya Pradesh, was first operated by a subsidiary of UK's Turner & Newall, and later by a subsidiary of ETEX/Eternit between 1992-1998. It has dumped asbestos waste on 600,000 square metres of land. More than 3000 people currently live there.
This study has found presence of one million tonnes of asbestos-contaminated surface soil,with asbestos concentrations of upto 70%. Belgian ETEX/Eternit was a shareholder of five asbestos factories in India during 1989-2001, ETEX/Eternit sold its Indian subsidiary prior to Belgian ban on asbestos.
The workers, their families, consumers and unsuspecting citizens at Kymore factory and its vicinity face risks of exposure to asbestos fibre. Asbestos is a threat to life throughout its life cycle. Some ex-workers and their family members have reported manifestation of asbestos-related diseases.
It has been admitted that the prevalence of asbestosis is 3-9% among factory workers. In such a backdrop, it is ironic that Everest is into Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) work for Tobacco Control! Now one has to wait only for the Tobacco industry to undertake CSR work for Asbestos Control although some 70 countries have learnt that safe and controlled use of this carcinogenic mineral fiber is impossible.
Disregarding incurable Asbestos diseases, India's first plant Asbestos fibre based plant in Kymore has been awarded for excellence in Safety, Health and Environment by Government of Madhya Pradesh (MP). It has ignored WHO's recommendation seeking elimination of Asbestos related diseases which requires ban on asbestos. WHO is the same entity whose recommendations on covid-19 is restructuring global response of public health institutions all over the world.
Notably, UN agencies have taken note of human rights implications of exposure to asbestos from this asbestos fibre cement factory, which used to be partly owned by Belgium-based company, ETEX/Eternit, and dumping of asbestos waste in the village of Kymore, Madhya Pradesh, India. They have written to the Government of India but our government is maintaining deafening silence and remains indifferent to the plight of the victims of asbestos related diseases.
It may be recalled that the Kymore asbestos factory was India’s first asbestos plant, built by British company Turner & Newall. The British also built an asbestos based plant in the erstwhile Shahabad district of Bihar. Besides Kymore, UN agencies have noted the presence of Everest factories in Nashik, Coimbatore, Kolkata and Roorkee. The plight of workers and communities in these areas merit your attention. The committee ought to visit the sites of these factories which were linked to Eternit in particular and other asbestos based factories in India
This situation creates a compelling logic for Indian authorities to take cognisance of India’s asbestos legacies, and the implications of the ongoing import, manufacture, procure and use of white chrysotile asbestos mineral fiber despite having banned its mining.
The conviction of the Swiss asbestos tycoon is linked to the abject lack of effort by Eternit management to protect or warn workers and the people in the community surrounding the plant prevailed during the 80 years of plant operation until the plant was padlocked and declared bankrupt in 1986. The terror imposed on the community, with so many dying from asbestos, year after year, is expressed in the testimonies of the victims.
A testimony of Chandni Sharma, daughter of a victim of malignant mesothelioma, one of the deadliest forms of cancer which is caused by exposure to asbestos. an asbestos related disease establishes the crying need to address this public health crisis. She says:
“My father Mr Dayakrishan Sharma had served the Indian Navy 41 years. My dad was admitted for days, all night I would read about mesothelioma, I asked my father if he had ever got in contact with Asbestos to which he replied asbestos was used in Naval Dockyard, I asked him if he was sure- he said of course, it was a material used for fire insulations and he had been present many a times when the process was on. I was astonished, my father got this deadliest form of cancer due to exposure to asbestos at work, in defence -- in the Indian Navy!”
Notably, Indian Navy officials have rightly objected to the presence of asbestos in aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov which was inducted into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya after asbestos decontamination. Both civilian and non-civilian lives in India are exposed to the carcinogenic asbestos mineral fibers.
Significantly, Indian railways is engaged in making more than 7,000 railway platforms asbestos free. Similar efforts are needed in every sector and in every public and private space. India has banned mining of asbestos due deleterious impact on health but it is quite ironic that the Union Government allows import of white chrysotile asbestos from countries like Russia, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan and others. Government should not allow itself to be misled by asbestos producers like Russia in this regard due its “deleterious” impact on health.
Will Yale University rescind honorary degree given to Schmidheiny? Will winners of Max Schmidheiny Freedom Prize return their prizes?
In Europe, tycoons and ministers are facing criminal charges and imprisonment for their act of knowing subjecting unsuspecting people to killer fibers of asbestos. The future is no different for Indian culprits. It is increasingly evident that sooner or later, the asbestos industry in India too will go bankrupt because they will have to pay a huge amount of money in compensation. For every injury in the law there is a remedy. The present and the future generations will make sure they get remedy.
Government must persuade the asbestos industry to phase out in two phases. In the first phase the goal is to eliminate use of chrysotile asbestos and the number of exposed workers and consumers in the country. In the second phase, the goal is to create incentives for the use of safer materials, ensure, create a registry of asbestos laden buildings and victims of asbestos-related diseases and ensure decontamination of the former and compensation for the latter.
There is an immediate need to conduct an audit of the current status of the victims of asbestos related diseases from the government hospital records in the country and make it mandatory for medical colleges to provide training for doctors so that they can diagnose diseases caused by occupational, non-occupational and environmental exposures to killer fibers and substances.
It is unbecoming of the India’s scientific stature to take untruthful and unscientific position displaying unpardonable callousness towards concerns of consumers, public health, workers, environment and human rights. India should learn from countries that have banned asbestos of all kinds including white chrysotile asbestos.
These countries are: 1) Algeria, 2) Argentina, 3) Australia, 4) Austria, 5) Bahrain, 6) Belgium, 7) Brunei, 8) Bulgaria, 9) Chile, 10) Croatia, 11) Cyprus, 12) Czech Republic, 13) Denmark, 14) Egypt, 15) Estonia, 16) Finland, 17) France, 18) Gabon, 19) Greece, 20) Germany, 21) Gibraltar, 22) Hungary, 23) Honduras, 24) Iceland, 25) Iraq, 26) Ireland, 27) Israel, 28) Italy, 29) Japan, 30) Jordan, 31) Kuwait, 32) Latvia, 33) Luxembourg, 34) Lithuania, 35) Mauritius, 36) Mozambique, 37) Malta, 38) Netherlands, 39) New Caledonia, 40) New Zealand, 41) Norway, 42) Oman, 43) Portugal, 44) Poland, 45) Qatar, 46) Romania, 47) Saudi Arabia, 48) Sweden, 49) Switzerland, 50) Serbia, 51) Seychelles, 52) Slovakia, 53) Slovenia, 54) South Africa, 55) South Korea, 56) Spain, 57) Turkey, 58) Uruguay, 59) United Kingdom and 60) Ukraine. Besides these countries, 10 more countries have banned asbestos of all kinds.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO):
"All types of asbestos cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancer of the larynx and ovary, and asbestosis (fibrosis of the lungs). Exposure to asbestos occurs through inhalation of fibres in air in the working environment, ambient air in the vicinity of point sources such as factories handling asbestos, or indoor air in housing and buildings containing friable (crumbly) asbestos materials."
It underlines that several thousands of deaths can be attributed to other asbestos-related diseases, as well as to non-occupational exposures to asbestos.
It may be noted that in our country, the government does not record cases of mesothelioma, and thus proclaims no one in the country develops the disease. But “a lack of data does not mean a lack of disease.” It has come to light that “A lot of the asbestos cement factories — a major use of asbestos in India — are owned by members of parliament”.
In the backdrop of the Italian court’s verdict, the Government of India and State Governments must ensure compliance with the six specific directions given by Indian Supreme Court in CERC v Union of India on 27 January, 1995. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) must be asked to seek reports from all the hospitals about asbestos related victims attended by them.
Governments must issue an order seeking a database of victims of asbestos related diseases, asbestos laden buildings, an inventory of asbestos based products, a database of hospitals which can diagnose the disease and a database of agencies which are competent to decontaminate asbestos from existing buildings. This will be helpful for the present and future generation of Indians and residents.
It is high time the Government of India and State governments took steps to make the manufacturers of asbestos based products liable for knowingly exposing the present and future generation of Indians to killer fibers. There is a compelling logic for charging these manufacturers with the offence of manslaughter. The conviction of the asbestos billionaire creates a logical compulsion for the governments to make India free from asbestos related disease causing factories and products.
---
*Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI

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