Awards to Schmidheiny and Candidacy of Paolo Boffetta
Attacked by Victims' Groups
We are now just 20 days into the New Year and the deluge of asbestos news which was observed throughout 2013 shows no sign of abating. European and Latin American asbestos victims' groups, which have consistently called for industry and government personnel to be prosecuted for asbestos crimes, have in 2014 ratcheted up efforts to prevent those linked to this deadly industry or perceived to have supported it, from enjoying prestigious awards or high-level positions.
An Italian asbestos victims' group from Casale Monferrato AFeVA has obtained legal representation in the United States in its bid to have Stephan Schmidheiny stripped of an honorary doctorate awarded by Yale University in 1996. AFeVA argues that Schmidheiney's 2012 criminal conviction by an Italian court should debar him from this honor.1 Although the Ivy League college has not yet rescinded this award, the Yalegate scandal is far from over.2 In a letter he sent to Yale on January 14, 2014 AFeVA's U.S. lawyer Christopher Meisenkothen asked whether Yale had, in deciding to bestow the doctorate on Schmidheiny, considered the deadly impact his commercial activities had had on workers, family members and residents in Casale Monferrato.
Four hundred miles away from Italy's asbestos ground zero, the French asbestos victims' umbrella group ANDEVA started the year by weighing in on the controversial candidacy of Italian Epidemiologist Paolo Boffetta as the head of one of France's leading health institutions: the Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (CESP). As CESP is under the joint supervision of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and the University of Paris-South, ANDEVA's January 13th letter was addressed to the Presidents of both institutions as well as to the Minister of Social Affairs and Health and the Minister of Higher Education and Research. ANDEVA's actions and position in this debate attracted the attention of Le Monde newspaper which on Friday, January 17, 2014 reported on this development in an article entitled: Polémique autour d'une nomination au sommet de l'épidémiologie française [Controversy over appointment to the top position of French epidemiology]. 3
The selection process for the post of CESP director, a role which is regarded as both highly prestigious and influential, began in 2013 and was expected to be completed in 2014. The only person being considered for the job was 55-year-old Italian epidemiologist Paolo Boffetta. In the ANDEVA letter, President Pierre Pluta was categorical about the harm appointing Boffetta would do to the reputation of CESP and the ability of CESP to protect the health of French citizens. The nomination of Mr. Boffetta is, Pluta wrote seriously marred by major conflicts of interest, [and is] totally incompatible with the direction of the greatest French Centre of Epidemiology." It is understood that up until the end of 2013, Boffetta served as the Vice President of the International Prevention Research Institute (IPRI), a Lyons-based agency which, according to ANDEVA, produces and sells expertise or 'scientific' articles to industries on health issues and health risks.4 The ANDEVA President reported several contentious activities by Boffetta in his letter to the authorities, including the publication of an article in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention which denied that additional occupational asbestos exposure endangered the health of workers.5 The two authors of the article: Role of stopping exposure and recent exposure to asbestos in the risk of mesothelioma declared they had no conflicts of interest despite the fact that they had been commissioned by an asbestos defendant to advance this conclusion. Commenting on this oversight, campaigner Kathleen Ruff wrote:
The article is contaminated by serious scientific and ethical flaws. First of all, the 'review of the scientific literature' carried out by Boffetta and La Vecchia was selectively restricted to a limited number papers. Their 'review' carefully omits the scientific literature that shows that continued, increased exposure to asbestos does, in fact, cause additional harm to workers. The article is biased and the bias served the interests of the company that had paid them.6
Meanwhile in Brazil, representatives of the National Association of the Asbestos-Exposed ABREA have followed the example of their Italian counterparts and begun a campaign for the withdrawal by the Government of the prestigious Order of the Southern Cross which was, like Yale's honorary doctorate, awarded to Stephan Schmidheiny in 1996.7 In Venezuela and Costa Rica, initiatives are also being progressed to strip the asbestos magnate of awards. Explaining the victims' strategy AFeVA's Bruno Pesce said: 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.
In Britain and many other countries those who have profited from the asbestos industry remained ennobled and honoured. No criminal charges have been brought and no attempts have been made to have the awards they accumulated during their careers as asbestos purveyors rescinded. The ground-breaking actions of the Italian, French and Brazilian asbestos victims constitute a revolutionary approach that we would do well to follow.
January 20, 2014
Update: February 3, 2014
On January 31, 2014, a short news item appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde which reported that Paolo Boffetta had withdrawn his candidacy as head of the French Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health (CESP). According to the text, Boffetta had informed the heads of CESP of his decision in a letter dated January 28, 2014 (see: Epidémiologie: retrait d’une candidature contestée [Epidemiology: retraction of contested candidature]).
1 For more on Stephan Schmidheiny read Chapter 3: Asbestos Magnate or Environmental Guru: The Trials of Stephan Schmidheiny in Eternit and The Great Asbestos Trial. 2012. Further information about the pivotal role played by AFeVA in the Italian campaign for asbestos justice is in Chapter 6: Asbestos Activism in Casale Monferrato.
2 Povtak T. Yale Refuses to Revoke Stephan Schmidheiny's Honorary Degree. January 7, 2014.
Newsham J. A Toxic Legacy. September 8, 2013.
3 Polémique autour d'une nomination au sommet de l'épidémiologie française [Controversy over appointment to the top position of French epidemiology]. January 17, 2014.
Foucart S. Epidémiologie: des liaisons dangereuses [Epidemiology: Dangerous Liaisons]. December 17, 2013.
4 Ruff K. Asbestos victims denounce major conflicts of interest of scientist named to head France's leading institute of epidemiology and public health. January 16, 2014.
6 Ruff K. Further evidence of asbestos impropriety at IARC, the World Health Organization's cancer agency. December 23, 2013.
7 Brum E. A Maldição do Amianto [The Curse of Asbestos].