In a case followed around the world, two former executives of a Swiss building-products conglomerate were convicted in Italy Monday of causing the asbestos-related deaths of more than 3,000 people.
Each defendant — Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of the Eternit conglomerate, and Belgian baron Louis de Cartier de Marchienne, a major shareholder in the firm — was sentenced to 16 years in prison on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.
Schmidheiny, 64, and de Cartier, 90, were accused of exposing workers at four Italian asbestos cement factories — as well as people who lived near the plants — to asbestos fibers, which can cause deadly diseases such as mesothelioma, a virulent cancer that attacks the lining of the lung or abdominal cavity.
In 2010, the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the BBC jointly produced an investigation into the global asbestos trade, “Dangers in the Dust”, which revealed the tactics used by makers of asbestos building materials to market their products in developing nations despite overwhelming evidence of the fire-resistant mineral’s lethality.
Several activists said that Monday’s verdict in Turin, Italy, which came after a two-year trial before a three-judge panel, could send a powerful message to corporate officials who fail to control toxic exposures. The World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos on the job and more than 100,000 die each year of mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.