Asbestos Issues in Switzerland
According to Francois Iselin, a spokesperson for an asbestos victims' group based in Lausanne, Switzerland was, at one time, the world's highest per capita producer of asbestos products, with 100 kilograms per inhabitant. It is not surprising therefore that the incidence of asbestos-related disease in Switzerland is rising. The Swiss Insurance Institute, Suva, reports that the number of asbestos cases has increased from 38 per year during the 1990s to between 50-70 per year since then. Using in-house data, Suva reports 960 cases (including 600 fatalities) of asbestos-related illness between 1984-2001 for which it paid out SFr200 million ($145 million) in insurance benefits.
Massimo Aliotta, a Swiss lawyer who represents asbestos victims, is critical of the behaviour of Swiss insurers saying they routinely failed to issue warnings to their clients about the hazards of asbestos. Switzerland is, says Aliotta, far behind other European countries in its dealings with asbestos victims: the ten year time limit for workers to file claims for asbestos compensation against their employers is ludicrous when you are dealing with disease with can have a latency period of up to 50 years. Manfred Brunnler, a Suva spokesperson, admits that "before 1984, the law didn't allow us to carry out medical checks." Nowadays, Suva is, so he says, more proactive: "a newsletter is being sent to doctors, a brochure about clean-up measures is being prepared with unions and the insurer has created an asbestos forum." In December, 2002, representatives of the Swiss federal and cantonal governments attended the first meeting of the asbestos forum.
Information contained in the paper entitled Mesotheliomas among Italians, returned to the home country, who worked when migrant at a cement-asbestos factory in Switzerland, by Enzo Merler, Rosanna Bizzotto, et al adds another dimension to the Swiss asbestos legacy.1 In 1904, the Eternit asbestos-cement factory in Niederurnen, Switzerland started production; it manufactured asbestos-containing flat and corrugated sheets, pipes, tubes and some hand-shaped products such as garden furniture. Many members of the workforce were Italian migrants; the researchers identified 15 mesotheliomas amongst former Italian Eternit workers who, having left Switzerland, settled in Puglia, in Southern Italy, and in the Veneto Region, in the North East. The authors point out that Eternit, the owners of the Swiss factory, also owned an asbestos-consuming factory in Casale Monferrato, Piemonte, Italy. This facility was "active from 1907 to 1985, (it) was the oldest cement-asbestos factory in Italy, and is at the origin of a large number of mesotheliomas among the workers," family members and local residents.
Despite the introduction of a ban on asbestos in Switzerland in 1990, only half of the 4,000 asbestos-contaminated buildings in the country have been decontaminated. Perhaps this issue could be added to the agenda of the next meeting of the new asbestos forum?
1 Mesotheliomas among Italians, returned to the home country, who worked when migrant at a cement-asbestos factory in Switzerland, by Enzo Merler, Rosanna Bizzotto, Roberto Calisti, Domenica Cavone, Nicoletta De Marzo, Francesco Gioffrè, Tommy Mabilia, Daniela Marcolina, Marina Musti, Maria Giovanna Munafò, Sara Roberti, Paola Zambon. Social and Preventive Medicine 48 (2003) 65-69
July 4, 2003