The Curse of Asbestos 

by Eliane Brum1



Victims launch an international offensive to revoke the titles and awards of billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny, former owner of the Swiss Eternit Group. In Brazil, they are focusing on the Order of the Southern Cross, granted to him by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso

If it is up to asbestos victims, 2014 may be the worst year in the life of Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny. They are getting ready to open another front in the struggle to ban the carcinogenic fiber. This time, they are looking at something perhaps more valuable than the actual fortune of the businessman whose family founded the Swiss Eternit Group. Throughout the 20th century, the industrial group planted factories around the world and through them sowed fatal diseases such as asbestosis (known as “stone lung”) and mesothelioma (the so-called “asbestos cancer”). Now, the target of patients and their families is the intangible property to which the Swiss [tycoon] devoted much money, battalions of marketers and his greatest efforts: his biography.

In Brazil, lawyers of the Brazilian Association of People Exposed to Asbestos (ABREA) plan to revoke the prestigious Order of the Southern Cross, granted to the Swiss billionaire by then President Fernando Henrique Cardoso in 1996. The offensive is part of an international strategy of asbestos victims, led by Italian representatives. Since last year, the Italian organization AFEVA (Association of Relatives and Victims of Asbestos) has been pressuring Yale University, in the United States, to revoke the honorary doctorate of humane letters also granted to Schmidheiny in 1996. In Venezuela and Costa Rica, similar initiatives are being organized to pressure institutions that have granted him awards. The goal is to revoke one by one the titles and awards cited by the billionaire in his official biography. For each honor there is a group of victims organizing to press for its annulment. “We are not interested in destroying a human being, but in the search for the truth. And the truth is that there is no honor in the conduct of Mr. Schmidheiny,” wrote Bruno Pesce, coordinator of the AFEVA to the Yale University administration.

Stephan Schmidheiny is a tragic character in the contemporary world. For part of humanity he is a villain, for the other part a hero. During the 1990s, he was extremely careful to construct a biography that could erase – or at least obfuscate – his role as protagonist in what is known as “the greatest health catastrophe of the 20th century”: of the tens of thousands of deaths around the world due to asbestos contamination, a significant number occurred within his family's Swiss Eternit factories or within a few kilometers from them.

He almost succeeded.

The Schmidheiny family, one of the richest in Switzerland, made a fortune exploiting asbestos starting in the early 20th century. In 1969, at 22 years of age, Stephan began an internship at the Eternit factory in Osasco, in Greater São Paulo, a time during which he met some of the workers who would end up dying from illnesses caused by the fiber. In 1976, at 29 years of age, he took over the management of the Swiss Eternit business and, according to his version, decided to close production and sell the company when he discovered that asbestos caused serious illnesses, some of which were fatal. But Eternit only left family hands in 1990. It was not closed, but sold, leaving the lucrative production, as well as the human and environmental liability, to the new owners. On its website, the time is described in the following terms: “1988 – sales began of all shares of the Swiss Eternit group, which were completed at the end of the 1980s. The shares were sold to the legal successors with all the rights and obligations”. [Author's bold typefacing]

One must understand the context in which the Schmidheiny clan withdrew from the business responsible for a large part of its fortune over almost a century. At that time, Europe was already dealing with the “asbestos scandal," with thousands of victims. It is estimated that in France alone 100,000 people will die of illnesses related to asbestos by 2025. The first European countries to ban the raw material were Iceland, in 1983, and Norway, in 1984. Asbestos was gradually eliminated in various countries until it was totally banned by the European Union in 2005. Today, asbestos is banned in 66 countries, an honorable list on which Brazil is not included.

Documents prove that the industry had information about the relationship between exposure to asbestos and lethal diseases since the early 20th century. In the 1930s, there were already important studies attesting to the deadly potential of asbestos, when inhaled, causing diseases that took years and even decades to appear. One of them, asbestosis, kills the victim slowly through asphyxiation by hardening the lungs to the point that inhaling/exhaling is impeded. Thousands of workers around the world died asphyxiated after dedicating their lives to the Swiss Eternit Group and other asbestos industries. The majority of the victims are still fighting in the courts for compensation and assistance. In Brazil, companies such as Eternit created a standard compensation procedure. When the workers were close to dying, almost unable to speak, company representatives appeared in the hospital offering ridiculous amounts and a document ready to be signed, which eliminated any possibility of future legal claims by relatives. Desperate, in pain, unable to breathe, many victims signed the shameful papers.

At first, the asbestos industry denied the toxic nature of the fiber. Later, when it became impossible to stifle the growing number of occupational illnesses and deaths, many of them from mesothelioma and other types of cancer related to asbestos contamination, as well as research with increasingly compelling results, it changed the discourse and began to spread the idea of “controlled use of asbestos.” It argued that, with precautions and protection, it was possible to continue production without risking workers' lives. For this it spent – and continues spending – millions of dollars for marketers, lobbyists and scientists with the mission of circulating this idea and making it prevail. Brazil, a country in which asbestos is banned in only six states (Rio Grande do Sul, São Paulo, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Mato Grosso and Minas Gerais), is an example of how the strategy has functioned at the cost of human lives, environmental contamination and, soon, a considerable drain on the public coffers for health and welfare.

By arranging his strategic exit from the asbestos business, Stephan Schmidheiny managed to accomplish a type of “biographic whitewashing”. The Swiss billionaire coined the concept of “eco-efficiency,” becoming one of the celebrities of Rio-92, the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), and created the Fundes and Avina foundations. The latter, also quite well known in Brazil, finances projects to reduce poverty in various countries. A collector and connoisseur of art, he was frequently seen on visits to the most famous museums, such as the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York. As a “modern and philanthropic entrepreneur” he participated in conferences in American Ivy League universities, such as Yale. In 2003, he created an entity called Viva Trust, to which he donated US$1 billion, to finance the social and environmental projects of Avina. With this act, he announced his withdrawal from the world of business, distributing a business card on which was written, below his name: "helicopter pilot and diver."

The conversion of his biography, from asbestos prince to social and environmental philanthropist, appears to have been accomplished with great success. Laudatory articles in international – as well as Brazilian – magazines put him on their covers or main pages. Everything appeared to be going well for Stephan Schmidheiny, as had occurred for many others before him in the most diverse areas. Until February 13, 2012. On this date, he was sentenced, by a Turin Court, to 16 years in prison and payment of 100 million Euros for the asbestos-related deaths of thousands of people contaminated in Italian Eternit plants. The crime was described as a “willful and permanent environmental disaster and willful negligence of safety measures for workers”. On June 3, 2013, the sentence was not only upheld on appeal, but increased from 16 to 18 years in prison. The final sentence is expected in 2014, in Rome. The other defendant, Belgian Baron Jean-Louis Marie Ghislain de Cartier de Marchienne, died last year. During the trial, which Schmidheiny did not attend, the man celebrated in the American Forbes magazine as the “Swiss Bill Gates” had his name crowned with the word “murderer.”

In the courtroom, Eternit's conduct was described, hour after hour, by men and women who either lost their fathers, mothers, husbands, wives or children to illnesses caused by asbestos or were on the verge of losing their own lives to painful carcinogenic processes before the trial reached its end. People like the Italian Romana Blasotti Pavesi, who lost her husband, a sister, a cousin, a nephew and, lastly, a daughter to mesothelioma caused by asbestos. Only her husband had worked in the plant. Residents of Casale Monferrato, a city dominated by an Eternit plant over almost the entire 20th century, told of the time when they discovered that not only the workers and their families were dying, but also people in other professions (journalists, doctors, teachers, etc.) who had never directly handled the fiber, but had been affected by the environmental contamination.

In the verdict it was stated that, in 1976, faced with mounting reports of the relationship between asbestos and chronic and fatal diseases, the industry held a conference in Germany to discuss strategies to deal with the problem without stopping asbestos production. Stephan Schmidheiny attended this meeting. It was also emphasized that he participated in actions designed to mislead public opinion by discrediting or casting doubts on scientific research that proved the harmful effect of the mineral fiber on health. Finally, the court concluded: “Stephan Schmidheiny was completely aware in 1976 of the epidemiological studies on the causal relationship between breathing asbestos fibers and the establishment of diseases.” After the sentence, the same press that for years had praised the entrepreneurship, charity, vision and selflessness of the billionaire was forced to retreat.

By focusing on the biography of Stephan Schmidheiny, asbestos victims are fighting over how history is written, but at a very specific time. While most of the developed world has already banned the raw material and dealt with the human and environmental liabilities, some of the emerging powers, such as Brazil itself, are still quite susceptible to the industry lobby, when it is not directly complicit in the promotion of illness and death of people. Brazil today is the third largest global producer of asbestos, the third largest exporter and the third largest user of asbestos. It is interesting to see that, in Brazil, while asbestos usage is increasingly rare in the most prestigious parts of the major cities, it continues to be widely used in slums and working-class suburbs, indigenous communities, “quilombolas” (Note of the reviewer: African slave descendents or descendents of Afro-Brazilian slaves – known as quilombolas - who escaped from Brazilian slave plantations until abolition in 1888 live in quilombos) and river-side communities, and in the homes of small farmers, including – and perhaps especially – those in the Amazon.

In this context, the dispute over the narrative of Stephan Schmidheiny's biography becomes strategic in the struggle to ban asbestos. And may define both the acceleration of some outcomes and the inclusion of new chapters in a story being written. There is no doubt that the asbestos issue/subject is a real thriller that can lead to a film as revealing of the methods of the industry as The Informer was for the tobacco industry. Or even a film like Thank You for Smoking, on “the lobbyists of evil.” There is little doubt that it will go down in history as one of the biggest labor and health scandals of the 20th century – and 21st. But the image and place of central characters like Schmidheiny is still in dispute.

By engaging in battles designed to revoke his titles, awards and honors, asbestos victims want to prevent the triumph of the Schmidheiny narrative, best displayed in a former version of his biography, told in the first person, but already replaced on his official website: “The Schmidheiny family always lived a quiet life, away from the public eye. Suddenly, I saw myself on the front pages of the newspapers, tied to the harmful effects of asbestos, the same effects against which I tried to protect my employees and the group. This was very difficult, not just for me, but for my family and friends. At that time, I decided that I alone was unable to calculate the true extent of the risks involved in the production of asbestos cement products. Our advisors thought that the scientific studies designed to prove the harmful effects of this material were full of contradictions. I realized that the lack of a transparent scientific and technical consensus in relation to asbestos and the unpredictability of its effects made any reliable planning or risk management impossible. I thus concluded that this was not a very promising perspective to be involved in. At the same time, I made a radical decision. Without having the slightest idea of how we would implement the change, I publicly announced that the group would stop manufacturing products containing asbestos. I can well remember the words of one of the technical managers after my announcement: 'The young Schmidheiny is crazy! He wants to manufacture Eternit products without asbestos. That's like wanting to find dry water…' I made the decision to no longer use asbestos based on the health and environmental problems associated with this mineral. But I also had the feeling that in a time of increasing transparency – as well as concern with health risks – it would be impossible to develop and continue a successful business based on asbestos. This insight made me begin to seriously consider the relationship between business and society. It was a painful period, but an invaluable preparation for my subsequent dedication to leadership in matters related to business and society.”

On his current website, this time is summarized in his biography, now told in the third person, as follows: "The young, recently graduated lawyer entered the Swiss Eternit at only 29 years of age, took over leadership a short time later and immediately began to drive its exit from asbestos processing, which was considered a pioneering accomplishment at the global level.”

This current version is considered by the victims and their lawyers as a product of effective whitewashing of his biography. “I am not going to address the merits of his subsequent life or his dynamism as an entrepreneur. But there is no purifying sense in this sale. Schmidheiny made economic use of Eternit, earning economic profits. It was not a donation. He sold it, allowing asbestos products to continue to be produced by the new owner,” states Mauro Menezes, a lawyer for ABREA. “It makes no sense for our country to maintain a medal granted to someone who subsequently was criminally condemned for willful negligence in failing to protect the health of thousands of people.” Roberto Caldas, another lawyer for ABREA – and today a judge for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – states: “A commendation is a signal to society that the recognized individual performed great service to the country. Once it is clear that the person was not what he was believed to be, it is natural that the honor be withdrawn. A criminal cannot continue to hold an honor like this without compromising the image of the country.”

In Brazil, the main actor in the struggle to ban asbestos is the engineer Fernanda Giannasi. Factory Inspector for the Ministry of Labor and Employment for 30 years, she retired last August to dedicate herself full-time to the cause that has already led to death threats. “Fighting to revoke the Order of the Southern Cross given to Schmidheiny is one more way to set the story straight of this 'almost perfect' social crime,” she states. “This struggle means deglamorizing a personality that was enthroned by the environmental movement at the beginning of the 1990s as a guru, but who was part of a large puzzle involving the extraordinary story of this multinational industrial corporate crime that took place over the entire 20th century and went virtually unpunished.”

The struggle over the Swiss billionaire's biography will not be easy. The Schmidheiny aura continues in some high-level spheres even after the conviction by the Court of Turin. The exchange of letters between the office of the law firm that represents the Italian victims and the University of Yale is an example. This was the response of the Yale administration to the victims' request: “Yale granted the honor to Mr. Schmidheiny for his defense of sustainable development and growth. The decision to recognize him was made by a committee that took into account his entire background: that of a philanthropist who used his wealth to finance sustainable growth in Latin America and elsewhere, an international pioneer in changing the way companies view environmental sustainability and a businessman who inherited and dismantled decades-long asbestos processing. There is no record of Yale ever having revoked an honorary title and we are not considering this step in the case of Mr. Schmidheiny.”

Christopher Meisenkothen, the lawyer who represents the Italian victims, replied: “A real reduction in the value of an institution's honors occurs when the group of persons recognized is affected by the inclusion of controversial figures. I would like to think that an institution like Yale University would like to maintain and protect the integrity of its honorary titles, as well as promote the high ethical standards by which those awarded are recognized.”

The victims' lawyer asked for a list of the donations made by Schmidheiny to the university. In the first letter, Yale denied that any financial support had been provided. Meisenkothen then sent copies of articles released by the university itself, in which mention is made of a donation by the Avina Foundation to Yale, shortly after the title was granted to the billionaire. The Yale administration apologized, explaining that it had only researched the “digital databases" and not the “paper archives,” which is why it provided “misinformation.” But, even so, it reiterated its decision not to revoke the title. The victims' relatives promise to continue pressing the university and American and international public opinion for annulment of the honor.

Yale is a private institution. The Brazilian case is different. The Order of the Southern Cross is a commendation granted by the state, a recognition of services provided to the country by a foreigner, involving, therefore, the entire Brazilian population. Among the strategies planned by the Brazilian asbestos victims, in addition to an intense campaign in the social networks, is that of having a congressperson assume the cause to have the medal revoked by the legislature. There is at least one precedent working its way through parliament: the request to revoke the Order of the Southern Cross granted to Alberto Fujimori, former President of Peru, today condemned for serious human rights violations.

The whitewashing of a biography is not a historical novelty and deserves to be explored more thoroughly by historians. In general, there is a tortuous path and a number of gaps between the person of flesh and bone, passion and villainy, and the “squeaky clean” figure who becomes a statue in the squares of each city. The difference between the past and the present, and especially a present with the internet, is that this transition cannot be as easily accomplished as previously.

If previously, economic and political power were sufficient to create a new image, today there are many obstacles. Beginning with the fact that actors, previously without voices, have begun to shout in the social networks and organize noisy campaigns with information that the previously heroic owner of the biography would prefer to erase. Not empty cries, but anchored in documentation: the Italian victims delivered a letter to Yale University in support of their cause with the names of more than 70 renowned scientists from around the world, as well as the main conclusions of the Court of Turin, taken from a sentence more than 800 pages long. Connected by technology and linked through the social networks, asbestos victims promise to confront the Swiss billionaire's marketers and crisis managers and, with little money, but many supporters around the world, write a more complex narrative of the life of Stephan Schmidheiny. They are fighting over the writing of history not in the future, but now, in the present.

Stephan Schmidheiny is not the only tycoon who, after a turbulent life in the world of business, decided to become a philanthropist. Either to atone for previous sins, as part of a marketing strategy, to escape future convictions, or – unlikely, but not impossible – because of real repentance. It may be for all of these reasons as well as others. The world today is moved by some of these men who have invested or donated fortunes obtained in questionable ways, to say the least, to foundations that finance “the right” causes. Such as Schmidheiny's Avina Foundation, which is far from being the only one.

This reality causes ethical dilemmas for some people, otherwise capable and well intentioned, who benefit from this support to implement important actions to reduce poverty, protect the environment or even democratize information. It seems to be a simple equation, but it is far from it. On one hand, the money obtained in a questionable way, or even illegally or even criminally, is used for projects of proven importance. On the other, those financed by this money help to promote and legitimize the biographic whitewashing of the benefactor, by collaborating to erase history. Movements like those of the asbestos victims, by looking at the philanthropic image of Stephan Schmidheiny, open a prickly discussion that few are interested in engaging in. But it may be necessary to have the courage to confront these issues, in the name of transparency, and also explore the complexity of these new dilemmas as we mature as a society.

Villain or hero? Perhaps Stephan Schmidheiny is not one or the other, but both at distinct times and places. Perhaps one of his errors was believing that he could make himself into a hero, something, in fact, that he almost achieved. But Eternit manufactured too many ghosts, at a time when we are connected like never before, making this whitewash impossible. These ghosts speak today through the mouths of their surviving relatives. And they speak through the networks to millions.

As a human being, neither hero nor villain, the tragedy of Stephan Schmidheiny is fascinating. Taking responsibility for the controversial acts of his family over almost a century would be the same as destroying the family memory, something not easy for anyone, rich or poor. It makes sense to believe that the only ethical choice possible would have been to reveal and admit the dark side of the Eternit history, taking responsibility for the human and environmental liability, for compensating and supporting workers, and for decontaminating the cities where the plants existed. And donating the remaining money for research for the treatment and cure of asbestos diseases. Not out of fear of going to jail, although he has already told the press that he would not “serve time in an Italian jail,” but because it is morally correct, even if incredibly hard.

But this is not the path of heroes, but of men. They need to live with their mistakes and cowardly acts, if not with blood-stained hands, often in public. The path of men does not result in titles from Yale or medals offered by the Itamaraty Palace (Order of the Southern Cross), or even a place of honor in global environmental conferences or special attention in trendy art museums. Stephan Schmidheiny preferred to sell the company, transfer the liability to other hands and concentrate on building an image as a benefactor. He, who according to the Court of Turin, was involved in so much evil, perhaps wanted too much: a place in history as a hero. And so his victims appeared to remind him that he is a villain – and that the bodies will remain unburied until there is justice.

On December 19, 2003, João Francisco Grabenweger, an Eternit worker in Osasco, in Greater São Paulo, who as a German speaker was a type of interpreter and chaperone for the young Schmidheiny during his internship at the Brazilian plant, wrote a letter to the billionaire. The following is an excerpt “Allow me to ask you sir, have you ever read an article about the victims of the Nazi concentration camps? Those who survived receive substantial financial compensation with all possible rights. We, former employees of Eternit, were kept completely in the dark about the fact that we were working in an asbestos concentration camp. Being good employees, we worked to the best of our abilities, with complete pride and dedication, to create the Schmidheiny family's asbestos cement empire. But what did we receive from “Mother Eternit”? We received a bomb with a delayed-action detonator that was implanted in our chests. I ask that you help ensure the justice that we have dreamed of for those who gave their lives for you sir, and for your family and your business.”

João Francisco Grabenweger died of asbestosis, in painful asphyxia, on January 16, 2008. He never got a response. Eternit, in other hands, offered him US$ 27,000 to abandon his lawsuit for compensation.

To a certain extent his letter, years before the sentence of the Court of Turin, reminded Stephan Schmidheiny that, when it comes to human destiny, not even those who believe they are gods can escape.


1 The original Portuguese version of this article entitled A Maldição do Amianto appeared in the Latin American edition of El Pais on January 6, 2014.
El Pais kindly granted permission for IBAS to commission an English translation which was undertaken by the São Paulo translation firm: Unitrad. The author Eliane Brum is a writer, reporter and documentary producer. She has written the non-fiction books: A Vida Que Ninguém v [The Life that No One Sees], O Olho da Rua [The View from the Street] and A Menina Quebrada [The Broken Girl] and the novel Uma Duas [One Two]. Email: Twitter: @brumelianebrum



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