Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. A court in Italy this week handed down a verdict that the country's health minister is calling 'historic.' The court convicted two businessmen of negligence, leading to more than two thousand asbestos-related deaths. The two men were executives with the company called Eternit. They were found guilty of intentionally failing to install safety measures at the company's fiber cement factories in Italy to prevent asbestos fibers from spreading into the surrounding communities. Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgian baron Jean-Louis de Cartier were sentenced in absentia to sixteen years in jail each. They were also ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages. Barry Castleman testified at the trial in Turin. He's an environmental consultant and expert on asbestos.
Barry Castleman: I told the court that the asbestos industry was well aware of the lethality of asbestos from asbestosis, a lung-scarring disease going back to the 1930s, and that by the end of the 1930s even Germany was compensating lung cancer in addition to asbestosis as an occupational disease of asbestos workers.
Werman: Are there things Eternit could have done to better protect the workers in their plants, or the communities where their plants were operating?
Castleman: Sure, and that's what the case was about. They were charged with not taking reasonable steps to protect the workers and the community from the hazards of breathing the asbestos dust, the workers weren't being told that breathing asbestos could cause cancer and asbestosis, and they weren't provided with the dust control—the extensive dust control systems that would have at least reduced their risk.
Werman: Remind us of the properties of asbestos—I mean, I know you got into some historical detail, but why the need to make asbestos fiber cement, and what happens when workers come into unsafe contact with asbestos?
Castleman: Well, asbestos is a mineral fiber, and it's used as an ingredient in strengthening such products as cement and vinyl asbestos flooring, thermal insulation for a period of time, and it's because of its chemical resistance and tensile strength it offers useful properties. And as long as the health costs are not borne by the companies selling these products, they're quite profitable. And so this went on for a long, long time because of the long latency of the diseases of asbestosis and cancer from asbestos—normally twenty, thirty or more years from the onset of exposure, so the workers were exposed to the dust, the effects were long-delayed, the workers died one by one, very often from undiagnosed cases of occupational disease.
Werman: What are the current uses of asbestos? And maybe you can also address the fact that apparently asbestos use is growing. I hope that it's growing in way that keeps the workers who handle it safe.
Castleman: Unfortunately, no. The biggest growth is in India and China. In fact, China is the number one user, India number two, and the use of asbestos is doubling every eight years or so in both of those countries. It's almost all used in fiber cement roofing and flat sheet and asbestos cement pipes. These construction materials, when they're cut with power saws, give rise to very high levels of airborne asbestos dust. And asbestos, by the way, has been banned in about fifty five countries.
Werman: Environmental consultant Barry Castleman. He testified at the trial in Italy of two former executives who have since been convicted of negligence, leading to more than two thousand asbestos-related deaths.