‘Asbestos poisoners must be judged.’ This was the demand by contamination victims and their loved ones in Paris at a demonstration in 2005. First formal complaints in France date from 1996, but there has been no major criminal trial.
One demonstrator said: “It’s easier to go to court for a rabid dog than to get a case opened for asbestos victims.”
Asbestos was banned in France in 1997. Widely applied in industry for its physical and chemical properties and competitive cost, it began to be used extensively in the 1930s, and increasingly up to the 1970s.
Illnesses, notably cancer, brought on by asbestos fibre inhalation, appear as late as 15 to 50 years after exposure. It has therefore come to be known as a silent killer, of epidemic scale some fear, with predictions of 100,000 deaths over the next decade or so.
The head of a French victims advocacy group, Josette Roudaire, said: “Once again we see inadequacies from everyone, whether it was doctors making the rounds of the workplace or health watchdogs – who saw nothing. As long as workers did not protest, no one saw anything.”
The criminal trial of two factory owners in Italy – the Eternit case in Turin – gave hope to French associations, some of whose members went to attend the court proceedings.
The guilty verdict returned against both of the defendants must help clear the obstacle course that justice-seekers have encountered elsewhere in Europe, say anti-asbestos legal representatives and lobbyists.
Lawyer Jean-Paul Teissonnière said: “Asbestos justice handed down in Italy is the example for us to follow. In France, complaints were brought by victims and associations in 1996.”
Laurie Kazan-Allen, Coordinator with the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, said: “There has never been a trial like the one that is happening in Italy. This is an incredible historic achievement. And I’m really sorry to say that we have never had anything like this in Great Britain. What we have there is individuals who will go to the courts to get compensation, but no one has ever been punished for the decisions they made as the heads of asbestos corporations.”
The Italian prosecutor said the Turin case marked a turning point for respect of workplace safety.